Separate the economy from the academy

Keith O’Neill


While travelling in Morocco recently I met a young man in a hostel who went by the name of Ozo. I began talking with him before we ate our communal meal and rather unoriginally as a means of starting a conversation I asked him a stock question which most fellow travelers utilise when engaging in amicable hostel conversion, “where are you from?” His response was rather unconventional and caught me by surprise; “the world”, he said. At that time I was somewhat frustrated at Ozo and his inability to play the game and engage with me in pleasantries, but upon reflection and with the benefit of retrospect, I now see his position entirely.

What is it in contemporary society that propels the modern day individual to label themselves within the sticky confines of a national setting and all the baggage that it entails such as differentiation and division? What is “Irishness” anymore if not a whole lot European, North American and Asian ad infinitum? Does the modern individual not now read Japanese books translated and published in New York, wearing clothes made in Cambodia while sitting on sofas made in Scandinavia? The point here is simple; we are all now modern individuals who dangle on a thousand different global strings. What is somebody claiming to be “Irish” referring to that is so critically different to somebody that claims to be Swedish, with the exception of semantics? There are very few relevant differences in associated cultural expression beneath the surface. We are all for the most part united by a project of liberal capitalism whether we may like it or not. Symbolic of this is that in our capital city’s cultural quarter we have the presence of Ronald McDonald, just like in Stockholm, Paris, New York, Tokyo and Melbourne. No longer can we claim to be something that is both unique to us and applicable to everybody at the same time, unless we want to start highlighting differences in bus fare or worse again the colour of asphalt.

“I propose that education up to now has been, and still can be if we maintain it, the last defender of the sovereign; a critical facility in which we can objectively reject the many wretched ills of the market place that undermine autonomy and eradicate any semblance of beauty to be found in the cultural process.”

Just as in the case of the cultural process the educational one is no different. Although we should not view these as separate epistemologies, it helps to define them as such. The academy – a once critical facility in which one could reject, with impunity, the many wretched ills of the market place is now seemingly succumbing to the intensified grip of the liberal project. Provost Patrick Prendergast has been spouting a lot lately about the requirement for Trinity College Dublin to reinvent itself in the face of falling QS rankings and apparent misconceptions about the function of Trinity as a university as opposed to a college. Claims that wealthy prospective international students are put-off by the fact that they seek a university education as opposed to a college education are prompting some academic elites to push for a rebranding of Trinity as an institution which apparently needs to reaffirm its identity as a top level global university fit for competition among its counterparts. Much has been written about this proposed face-lift in light of its affect upon attracting international students who are a great financial asset to any university. However, little has been said about the effect of such a move upon the educational process itself.

We know that education is a valuable resource for any civil society. Few would argue about the importance of tertiary education in producing many of the liberal values that we seem to adhere to and passionately defend as a vital part of the modern knowledge economy. Leaving aside the fact that education fuels economic productivity, educated people, generally speaking, make for good citizens. We have seen how education encourages tolerance and adaptation. It produces positive people, massagers of the societal organism, and creators of cohesion. But we must ask ourselves some very poignant questions that now emerge from this relatively new angle of economic governance of the third-level sector; what do these civil values really represent at their core with all this new talk of educational brands, and privatisation within our academic institutions?  Arguably the university has been governed by the economy for long before these new proposals, in effect what has not been? Our own sense of freedom and autonomy as individuals has been long been determined by our place and functionality within the market society. However the academy of the past had the ability to critique the sheer restrictive and banal nature of capitalism and indeed more importantly provide analysis of the great institutions that it has trampled upon, undermining autonomy and eradicating any semblance of beauty once found in the cultural process. Indigenous institutions homogenised and capitalised, trampled underfoot. With the implementation of these new proposals I now doubt that we could attempt to claim that this is still the case.

The Bologna Process signed in the June of 1999 sought to standardise practices within higher education by allowing for the free movement of students and graduates across the continent for any of the 46 countries within the European Higher Education Area (EHEA). This quite clearly paved the way for cooperation among higher level institutions, a move unparalleled in previous times. The idea here was simple; the enlargement in scale of the European systems of higher education done in order to enhance its ‘competitiveness’ by cutting down costs. Therefore a Europe-wide standardization of the ‘values’ produced in each of the national higher educational systems was called for, effectively eroding all forms of democratic political control over higher education.

I propose that education up to now has been, and still can be if we maintain it, the last defender of the sovereign; a critical facility in which we can objectively reject the many wretched ills of the market place that undermine autonomy and eradicate any semblance of beauty to be found in the cultural process. We must give serious thought to the notion of the knowledge economy and the universities role at the forefront of this process. In the glowing light of the late radical philosopher Michel Foucault, it would seem that in this new global civil society that we are fervently striding towards – one so heavily entangled in the field of the capitalist thought; knowledge and truth is whatever works economically. Keep calm and study on.