Universities in times of crisis and renewal

Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law

Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law

The new President of Ireland (and former university lecturer) Michael D. Higgins, describes it perfectly. In speeches delivered in Dublin and London earlier this year he explored the nature of the crisis facing universities and public intellectuals. He warned of an ominous ‘drift into…a consensus that accepts a failed paradigm of life and economy’. He spoke eloquently and tellingly of the role of universities in sketching alternative futures, of the desperate importance of participatory citizenship, the required restoration of unity between science and culture, and the ‘struggle for the recovery of the public world’. An inspirational new President, who knows his ground well, continues to lay down an invigorating and necessary challenge to universities to realise their true mission.

In Northern Ireland, Dr Stephen Farry, the Minister for Employment and Learning has produced Graduating for Success, our new Higher Education Strategy. This paper will frame our discussions for the years ahead. It joins an impressive list of Northern Ireland strategies. There is no mistaking the focus. It is evident throughout that universities are correctly viewed as key to economic development – a major priority for the Northern Ireland Executive. The document contains reference also to a shared society and social inclusion, and hints at a more holistic vision.

The moment thus seems right to raise the risk of a cramped and narrow conception of economic development eroding the genuine potential of our universities. At this time, perhaps more than ever, it is essential to defend robustly the pivotal place of universities in painting alternatives, and opening public space for contestation and debate. The university as a sphere for the generation of original thought, caring educational provision, and a secure site where dominant economic, social, political and cultural paradigms can be unpacked, discussed and even dismissed. Such an approach would, in the long term, better serve Northern Ireland – and this island – in a more innovative, genuinely creative and inclusive sense. The good news is that much of this is evident in what is currently done well.

What might raising the risk now imply? Why bother? Because there is a danger that failure to grasp what we do best will combine with regressive tendencies to harm all our long-term interests. The outcome of realising our potential would be acceptance of our universities as globalised spaces for curiosity-led research, alive with engaged and original thought, willing to embrace and celebrate seemingly ‘inconvenient’ research findings, understanding of what critical thought requires, caring and thoughtful about the needs of all students and staff, and with a generous and compulsive commitment to enlarging the public square and the public world. Carving out this territory requires constant engagement with at times suffocating technocratic mindsets and deeds, which owe too much to outdated thinking. The rewards will have local and global implications. We in universities often see our challenges in a global context, thus making the local options better. Across the arts, humanities, social and natural sciences, universities should strive to contest boundaries wherever they are found (including those between disciplines) and break through them. Improving public health through leading cancer research, developing new technologies to provide safe drinking water to the world, mapping transitional societies, highlighting the profound gaps between political and legal talk and the grounded empirical reality, nurturing new talent in law, politics, literature and music (and thinking critically about the output produced) are all part of what we do well in universities here. The imposition of an instrumentalised new world order of higher education (based on disastrous models of the past) would put creative cultures at risk and stifle the engaged citizens we must encourage. To follow such a path is to endorse the dire consequences of the arid conditions necessarily produced. Let us hope we are smart enough to dodge that error.

This is not to pedal special pleading, to ignore the difficult times we face (and the part we in universities must play) or to further embed the already oppressive culture of vested professional interests in this society and on this island. We should be less shy in acknowledging our limitations, as well as celebrating and defending the best in our inherited intellectual traditions and values. We need our universities to be robust and self-confident not in empty and shallow promotional terms, but in articulating the best that is possible within a university environment committed to excellence. In this pursuit, we must guard against a distorted, failed and impoverished conception of economic development that will undermine the genuine potential of everyone here.

Universities can be the heart of a re-imagined and carefully reconstructed new Northern Ireland – one that does not foolishly and slavishly follow those dreadful economic paradigms that led us to our current global mess. We can be better than that. We can be much more ambitious than that. Universities have a leading role in probing the mistakes of the past and thus in doing society the public service of raising the uncomfortable questions and beginning to outline answers and options. Through his public leadership and compelling vision, President Higgins has much to teach us here in Northern Ireland about the role of universities.

Colin Harvey is Professor of Human Rights Law, Queen’s University Belfast. He served as Head of the Law School at Queen’s from 2007-2012.