The squalid meal of results-based thinking

A creeping careerist ideology is damaging our third-level institutions

I have a proposal for a restaurant in College, and this seems as good a forum as any in which to launch it. Its momentum has been gathering over a number of years through the steady debilitation of confidence in the way of things. What marks it out is its menu: instead of elevating food through evocative language, it consists of sixteen numbered photos of faeces, each varying in size, colour, texture and solidity. From these end results, customers are expected to deduce the dedication that went into preparing each dish, the felicity derived from eating them, and the good progress they made towards their pictured destinations. Black text rendered in Calibri on the wall concurs: “The proof of the pudding is no longer in the eating — pick a number.”

A single criterion sits in the way of you and a table at the restaurant when it opens: have you ever enquired of somebody, “how will you ever get a job with that degree?” If you are indeed the type of mind that can recast four years of experience into a ladder rung then you can be expected to crush a two-hour meal into ten minutes.

Trinity will be the flagship eatery, with more than enough people reproducing this bland question on campus to make the business viable — which is of course all that matters — but the plan is to extend the franchise to any university where students can subsist on a diet of books read for job interviews and academic papers written for citations.

“This mode of thinking, best described as instrumental or results-based, has infiltrated and embedded itself in higher education and academia.”

This mode of thinking, best described as instrumental or results-based, has infiltrated and embedded itself in higher education and academia. Students and parents now believe in considerable numbers that certain degrees are embarked on by “realists” with both eyes on the future, while others are quaint relics of a former, indulgent time that left millions jobless. Universities have exacerbated the problem by engaging in a PR game that conforms to normative conceptions of use and benefit despite the obvious advantages of attracting students who are unflinchingly passionate rather than persuaded. No sector, not even that which putatively originates criticism of the status quo, seems free from the dull ache of careerist sentiment — especially not in an era of perceived economic embattlement.

In typical fashion, something masquerading as dependable and ameliorative has risen to fill a void of uncertainty. In this case it is apparently the turn of science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) to assuage our fears about the future, a sentiment embodied with unnerving prophecy in the Science Foundation Ireland’s ball-of-wax motto: “For what’s next”.

Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) is the country’s official STEM representation and investment body. It lists its primary role as promoting and assisting “the development and competitiveness of industry, enterprise and employment in Ireland”, but goes on to say that it “also promotes and supports the study of, education in, and engagement with STEM”, encouraging “understanding of the value of STEM to society and, in particular, to the growth of the economy.” The latter sentiment is a somewhat telling delusion concerning education that fails to hide the organisation’s fundamental interest: unless one is Marx, which one is not, one’s defining academic moments will not be found in linking oneself to a wider economic structure of meaningless growth.

This is not to debunk the STEM industry as an idea, nor to mount a defence of the arts, humanities, or alternative disciplines in producing employable students. It is to highlight the damage of eschewing basic human need in pursuit of something as dangerously unpredictable as job security in an era defined by precipitous change.

“No sector seems free from the dull ache of careerist sentiment — especially not in an era of perceived economic embattlement.”

One pressing problem is that while STEM organisations push a conception of the future in which their success is important, predictable, or even inevitable, this is not the truth for the comparably high proportion of students embarking on STEM degrees who fail to follow them to their conclusion.  As reported by the Irish Times, the most recent data available from the Higher Education Authority (HEA) shows “high dropout rates in maths-related courses, where up to 80 per cent of students are failing to progress beyond first year.” The highest rates of non-progression are found in Computer Science, a phenomenon treated comprehensively by Eva O’Brien in Trinity News last year, when she spoke to a number of College academics in the field to ascertain the problem. Among a series of quotes evidencing a mismatch between perceptions of computer science and its ultimate job prospects, one stands out from a student who dropped out of his course prematurely, having based his choice on: “the coupling of my vague interest in computers with the word on the street that there is a lot of money to be made from them”. It’s hard to ignore how closely the pattern of thought mimics the SFI’s tactic of interest-creation backed by the gold of financial appeal.

It is important that STEM is not misconstrued here as the only sector guilty of misleading prospective students anxious about the value of a degree in the modern employment market. I would, however, have trouble suggesting any non-STEM course that requires a government to campaign for its cause with as much fervour as computer science. Some courses, such as Law and Medicine, will always be intimately vocational; while both are therefore liable to attract careerist students, it is unfair to suggest that this is because of a more recent conspiracy in educational policy, but instead a rather obvious job progression and an ancient fixation with their concomitant prestige. Nevertheless, the argument applies equally to all subjects that any consideration about course appropriateness which decentralises the student should be viewed with suspicion — not just on an ideological basis, but in acknowledgement of the fact that most other routes simply do not lead to a pleasant or rewarding experience of university, or indeed life. Without wishing to oversimplify for the sake of argument or vindicate the egregious lack of mental healthcare provision in Ireland, high rates of suicide in careers such as dentistry and veterinary medicine indicate the darker implications of worldviews that depend heavily on consistent expectations.

Of course, Ireland’s higher education system is, to an extent, beholden to certain decisions in policymaking and funding taken by the Department of Education and Skills, in whose name there is at least some hope that the two spheres are still considered separate. In addition, the activities of subject-specific bodies such as the SFI charged with public engagement have the potential to define a social discourse that will, to some extent, bleed into the consensus surrounding certain subjects. When the SFI announced recently that it would be investing €2.8m in “42 initiatives aimed at engaging the Irish public in science, technology, engineering and maths”, the anticipated reach of “3.6 million people by the end of 2017” could be expected to include a proportionate number of current and prospective students. In terms of the allocation of departmental funding and rhetorical attitudes, however, it is the responsibility of institutions to ensure that there is a demonstrable commitment to autotelic practices rather than instrumental ones; it is disconcerting when institutions claiming to encourage critical dynamism allow a dull and anti-intellectual conception of education to thrive within their admissions systems, and in turn their lecture halls.

Most fundamentally, within the discourse of results and instrumentalism there is limited space for reflecting on life as something indeterminate and constantly changing — as with the rhetoric of employability and innovation, the future intrudes on the present and becomes rigid and inarguable. Education becomes interchangeable with forward-looking words such as “training” that have previously been reserved only for practical courses. In an education system that treated its charges with humanity, there would be a ceaseless reminder that employment is a future delight to be savoured and deliberated over during the fifty years after university that will attend you to the grave. Most importantly, however, an education system confident in its ability to find individuals built for certain roles would be intent on ensuring that a vocation remains a calling — not just an echo returning with false reassurance from a cave of self-doubt.