What is the purpose of higher education?


DUBLIN CITY UNIVERSITY | 14 September 2020

Higher education is a privilege, a form of power, and an opportunity for freedom and transformation. I believe it is the purpose of higher education to enable students to self-realise their own values, priorities and potential, and to equip them to meaningfully contribute to social justice across disciplines of knowledge, fields of practice, and sectors of society.

My research work on social justice issues of human rights and historical abuse are a central element of what has attracted me to work as a university lecturer, researcher and academic. It has been the honour of my life to hear and learn from the experiences of victim-survivors of human rights abuses, both across the globe in the aftermath of armed conflict or dictatorship, and in our own national context in the aftermath of historically abusive institutions and practices.

The history marginalisation and harm of those deemed “other” both nationally and globally is a key element of my research. However, it also represented a lived reality and inheritance of those in and looking to gain access to higher education systems.

I believe those engaged in higher education, particularly those with a focus on questions of law, justice and morality in their substantive content have a responsibility to students on how we frame and present their education.

I recognise that I am the walking, talking definition of white male privilege. My life is not characterised by experiences of discrimination. To engage in victim-survivor centric research, teaching and practice, requires the de-centring of my experience, world view and preferences, and to seek to listen, hear and partner with those individuals and groups whose voices experiences and preferences have been historically and presently marginalised or excluded.

To teach students is to avoid the “banking model” of teaching, the idea that students are blank objects into which I as a lecture deposit knowledge or learning. Instead, teaching is an opportunity to share in a process of navigating a disciplinary and educational tradition and a dynamic social context.

I am keen to emphasise to students that their degree is not an apolitical or acontextual qualification, but represents a form of social and political transformation of an individual from child, student, into professional, and expert, particularly in the legal sector where the mystification of law continues to disable popular understandings and engagement with law and the rule of law.

With my approach to teaching and to higher education, I seek to emphasise that law, like education, can be a tool of great emancipation, a site of the pursuit of equality, justice, redress and accountability. However, it is equally (if not unfortunately more likely) also a site of oppression, of patriarchy, racism and domination, though framed in a formal legal context that may obscure its injustice behind procedure and “legalese”.

I seek to emphasise that education and law are deeply political activities, that silence in the face of social injustice is not neutral, but represents an affirmation of and contribution to harms experienced by others. I encourage students to consider that they may be actors who experience both discrimination, marginalisation and privilege and opportunity both simultaneously and/or over the course of their adult lives and careers.