What is the role of the university in the digital age?

Much of the literature on the future of higher education in the digital age has been almost apocalyptic. Predicting the transformation of the sector by "the forces of technology and globalisation", the UK’s Institute for Public Policy Research warned in its 2013 report, An Avalanche is Coming: Higher education and the revolution ahead: "the solid classical buildings of great universities may look permanent but the storms of change now threaten them".

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Outlining "the threat posed to traditional 20th century universities if key institutions don’t change radically", they identified the "entirely new models of university which are seeking to exploit […] globalisation and the digital revolution" as "the new competition, the real threat".

Similarly Ernst and Young’s 2012 report, University of the Future: A thousand year old industry on the cusp of profound change, suggested that, just as: "digital technologies have transformed media, retail, entertainment and many other industries – higher education is next".

The suggestion of a moral panic comes to mind and such language requires critique. How similar it is to the hubris of the short or abandoned World Bank reports on education as being "the next big private enterprise opportunity" in Africa. Quantity, delivered with a frenzied enthusiasm for action, and without consideration for form, culture, or ancient and indigenous rights would be the hallmark of that erroneous initiative also.

It is important to reflect on the sources, the assumptions and the purpose of the discourses from which those dramatic views have emerged. It is difficult, for example, to find the influence of social policy theorists, philosophy departments, social economists or indeed those engaged in fundamental theoretical work in such analysis.

Narrow debate

Similarly, the political climate and the political assumptions of the day influence academic possibilities. There is a grave danger that debates about the role of the university today are taking place in a narrow political and ideological space. Higher education worldwide has certainly moved from the periphery to the centre of government agendas.

However, with which aspects of our universities have government policy-makers concerned themselves, and with what consequences or benefits, and for whom, are questions that should concern all European citizens.

I suggest that at the present moment in Europe and far beyond it, insofar as policy-makers focus attention on education policy, they tend to view universities in a rather utilitarian way, as foundations of new knowledge and innovative thinking, within the confines of existing trade, commercial and economic paradigms, paradigms that are fading but not without damage to social cohesion.

Policy-makers pursue, perhaps with their own best of intentions, their own narrowly defined project, rather than any purposive change as a means of advancing social justice and mobility. They seek contributors to social and cultural dynamism irrespective of the distribution of the benefits. This is an approach wherein short-term concerns prevail over long-term developmental or social cohesion objectives.

We should recall some first principles of the necessary role of the university in society; principles which might set the parameters within which we can most productively engage with new technologies and reap the dividends of innovation; principles by which new technologies might strengthen rather than undermine the intellectual foundations of Europe that have been carved out over so many centuries; and principles that might remain as vision, however now threatened, for a possible better future for our citizens.

In doing so, we must first recognise that we live at a time when the language and rhetoric of the speculative market have become embedded in the educational culture and have brought some university practices down a precarious road. We have reached a juncture which sees intellectuals challenged to recover the moral purpose of original thought and emancipatory scholarship; a time when we must seek to recapture the human and unifying capacity of scholarship.

The challenge we face is that we must confront as erroneous a prevalent perception that the necessary focus of higher education must be on that which is utilitarian and immediately applicable.

Such a view sees the primary objective of the university, and those who study within it, as being in preparation for a specific role within the labour market, often at the cost of the development of life-enhancing skills such as creativity, analytical thinking and clarity in written and spoken expression. These are the skills that will be essential to the citizens of the future to make informed choices about life-work balance, about what constitutes survival and consumption, and what is meant by human flourishing, solidarity or humanity itself.

Intellectual crisis

Max Weber, the great social theorist, responded to the events of his time in the second half of the 19th century as a public intellectual, accepting the requirement not only of radical thought but of the duty to communicate as part of a public discourse. Weber’s was a time of radical change and transition, the response to which would be dominated by technocratic thinking.

Weber supported a commitment to rationality as the key building block of the future. His was not a mission to reject the rationalist heritage of a previous century, but to look beyond that horizon to something that was beyond logic, intuition and religious sentiment.

He critiqued the excesses of both positivism and idealism, but envisioned the consequences of a potential abuse of that which would be claimed to be rational. He foresaw the consequences of irrational thought and action hiding behind the mask of a ‘claimed rationality’ or a ‘bogus inevitability’.

Weber spoke of the threat of a spring that would not beckon with its promise of new life, but would deliver instead a ‘polar night of icy darkness’. He prophesied an iron cage of bureaucracy, a dehumanised landscape within which conformity would be demanded to that which no longer recognised its original moral or reasonable purpose.

While Weber’s view of the future might be seen as dystopian, we can certainly recognise some of the features he predicted in our contemporary situation, in which a ‘claimed rationality’ has led less to what is productive or inclusive but at so many times to what is a speculative gambling of resources and outcomes that has consequences in so much global misery.

Our contemporary European crisis is at least as profound as that faced by previous generations of political and social theorists at the end of the 19th century, but our response seems to be so slow, even, as so many European citizens sense, inadequate. The bucket rattles empty from the well of European intellectual thought. We are left thirsty for visionary possibilities of theory or policy.

The crafting of a response to this intellectual crisis is, I believe, a widespread challenge and one that the Irish and European universities must embrace, insisting on remaining open to originality in theory and research, and committed to humanistic values in teaching.

Free thinking

We must not forget that it is through the encouragement of creative and free thinking that our universities acquired their status in the past, and correctly claim it today, as unique institutions that accept the responsibility of enabling and empowering citizens to participate fully and effectively at all levels of society. This creative function must be cherished, nurtured and encouraged.

Too many, perhaps unknowingly, have accepted an ‘under labourer’ view of the university, indeed of intellectual work. Put more broadly, as we seek to survive and belong in a form of society/economy relationship where we have lost the capacity to critically evaluate, and as we witness the many great crises currently facing Europe, citizens yearn for the evidence of engaged critical interdisciplinary work.

"Be the arrow, not the target" was the title that the critical theorist, the late Raymond Williams gave to his last address on communications. We cannot allow ourselves to be the dependent variable of a fractured dialogue on the future of the European Union, or of a declining international solidarity. We European citizens cannot allow ourselves to sleepwalk through the crisis that an unaccountable, but reformable, form of globalisation presents.

In this context, the role of the university in enabling citizens to develop the intellectual tools to address the great challenges of our time, which include questions of development and global poverty, of climate change and sustainability, and of conflict and displacement, is one which is vital.

Indeed, that we have heard the call to be responsible in relation to climate change or to sustainable development, that it has been endorsed by world leaders, is due to responsible scholars, thoughtful scientists who have made the intellectual case for political action at the global level – who have combined scholarship with citizenship and activism.

In this wider social understanding of the university, its relationship with its students cannot in my view, without great loss, be reduced, then, to that of provider of any narrow professional training, guided towards a specific and limited objective, and essentially disengaged from the academic experience which is fundamental to independent thought and scholarly engagement.

Theirs must be a much broader rapport, one which introduces students to an intellectual life and allows them to develop a critical turn of mind as well as informing an ethical concern with their community and their planet.

Online learning

At the pedagogical level, the increasing availability of online courses has done much to make further education accessible to a wider range of citizens, which presents exciting opportunities for increasing participation – especially among remote or marginalised communities.

It is critical, however, that students do not become disengaged from the teacher/student experience. Learning from those who are passionate about their subject, face to face collaboration and regular engagement in organic debate and discussion, participation on university societies and clubs, journeying into the false avenues as well as the fruitful ones, is central to a rich and fulfilling educational experience.

There are great challenges in contemporary research practice too. In the published research in the social sciences, we have witnessed in recent decades the marginalisation of political philosophy and social theory to rather narrow issues of administration and, under pressure of publication and peer competition, to that which can be easily measured.

More and more pressure has come on universities and scholars to prove their relevance within a hegemonic version of the connection between society and economy that is destructive to social cohesion – one that has demanded a consensus on the desirability, not merely of an economic growth measured in gross terms, but of a singular, limited version of teaching economics. Scholarship requires the breadth and breath of culture for paradigm shift to happen.

We have been living through a period of extreme individualism, a period where, in its early extreme version, the concept of society itself has been questioned. The public space has been shrunk to being presented as a competitive space of consumers rather than citizens. That is the mark of our times, the hegemonic version of the model by which, it is suggested, we should live our lives together.

Neither can there be any doubt that one of the contributing factors of our recent economic crisis was a failure of capacity and intention on the part of our citizens, as well as our institutions, to question, to scrutinise and to interrogate the forms of individualism to which they were led to aspire. Our existence was assumed to be, was defined as, competing individual actors, at times neurotic in our insatiable anxieties for consumption, as Zygmunt Bauman might put it.

However, the will to create bridges and to listen to each other with respect remains as critical in the academic sphere as it is in all areas of life. When scholars are prepared, in their pursuit of knowledge and solutions, to engage in inclusive and interdisciplinary scholarship, to take a broader perspective, and to learn from the viewpoint of others, we can, as a society, only benefit from such an approach.

Defending the humanities

Indeed, even at the economic and most practical level, we must also be mindful that the workplace of the future will have to be a space of creativity, one that will need graduates who are creative thinkers, able to bring disparate ideas into a coherent whole, bringing that broader understanding to complex matters and engaging in the production of integrated solutions, engaging with intuitive intelligence as so much scientific advance and discovery teaches us.

Walter Isaacson has said that “science gives us the empirical data and the theories to tie them together, but humans turn them into narratives with moral, emotional and historical meaning”.

Thus within the university, abandoning or relegation of the humanities in our academic institutions will, in the future, be seen by future generations as a betrayal of the purpose of education. If we wish to develop independent thinkers and questioning, engaged citizens, our universities must, while providing excellence in professional training, avoid an emphasis that is solely or exclusively on that which is measurable and is demanded by short-term outcomes. They must allow for the patience and the peace that is required for memorable university teaching and research.

What I am outlining is not a simple question of any wasteful competition between the humanities and science. Rather, in a complex world, we are called to understand the necessary relationship between the liberal arts – the foundations on which much academic learning must be built – and the fields of science and technology in an integrated approach to learning. Indeed, throughout history the best of our scientists have merged scientific endeavour with the arts, creating a common space in which the best possibilities could be realised.

Dissent and transformative thinking

We will not now nor will we all agree. Fostering the capacity to dissent is another core function of the university. Third level scholarship has always had, and must retain, a crucial role in creating a society in which the critical exploration of alternatives to any prevailing hegemony is encouraged.

Universities must surely be facilitated and supported, made free and adequately funded, so that they may preserve their role as special places for the generation of alternatives in science, culture and philosophy. Universities must be places where minds are emancipated and citizens enabled to live fully conscious lives in which suggested inevitabilities are constantly questioned. If this is to be achieved, the importance of primary and original research is central.

In our current circumstances in Europe and the world, it is here, in our universities, that we can begin to enact such transformative thinking as is necessary to create the foundations of a society that is more inclusive, participatory and equal and the digitised campus may help us.

Digitisation has great possibilities for the effecting of positive transformation within our society. However, as with all tools of power, the ethical test is its biggest test. Neither technology, nor its potential to disrupt, are remote extrinsic forces over which we as humans have no control. All of us, as members of a global society, must play our role in guiding the pathway of new technology into our society in a way that is ethical and moral.

That transformative thinking will require a real change in consciousness. It is through critical and engaged pedagogy that we can be assured that we are engaging the educators of a generation that will have the capacity to understand and question the assumptions of any status quo, and to understand when that status quo must be challenged and how; a generation who will have the confidence and the wisdom to engage in alternative visions of what a society can be, and bring it into being.

I suggest that the universities and those who work within them are crucial in that struggle for the recovery of the public world, for the emergence of truly emancipatory paradigms of policy and research.

The contemporary European challenge is not merely a case of connecting the currency, the economy and the people, it is about recovering the right to pose such important questions as Immanuel Kant did in his time – what might we know, what should we do, what may we hope?

As the university repositions itself in a globally connected and more culturally diverse society, it must seek to deliver its capacity to deliver that creative consciousness and participatory citizenship; recognising both the positive and liberating potential of technology and the critical role of emancipatory universal learning in enabling us to connect to the possibilities of an unknown future.

Michael D Higgins is President of Ireland. This is an abridged version of his opening speech to the European University Association or EUA’s annual conference on 7-8 April. As a lecturer in political science and sociology at the National University of Ireland in Galway and in the United States, Michael D Higgins was a passionate proponent for the extension of access to third level education beyond the walls of established universities and was centrally involved in the development of extra-mural studies at National University of Ireland, Galway, travelling extensively across the West of Ireland to provide accessible evening classes for interested citizens. The themes in his EUA speech are central to his presidency, namely championing the importance of ideas, the importance of academic work and the need for a deeper and more ethical public sphere.