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President of Ireland

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President of Ireland

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Speech at the EUA Annual Conference

NUI Galway, 7th April 2016



Vice President of the European Universities Association Prof. Martine Rahier,

President of NUI Galway,

Distinguished guests,

Fellow scholars and Friends,

May I thank the organisers of your conference for your invitation to be with you this morning.  It is a great pleasure to welcome you to Galway and to have the opportunity to address you on this theme of the future of our universities and their position in a rapidly changing society.

I am delighted to have the opportunity to welcome the European Universities Association here to Ireland for the first time. As a critical forum for the discusson of EU policies on higher education, research and innovation, the European University Association is an essential component of our shared intellectual infrastructure.  

Your conference, and the further discussions it will no doubt initiate and inspire, are concerned with issues of great importance to a Europe which is undergoing great change, and thus also to Ireland and the Irish people.

As a nation, Ireland has ancient and, I am pleased to say, contemporary connections to the traditions of European scholarship and to the historical intellectual roots from which the very idea of Europe grew. For example, in the long history of our Irish people, we dedicate a special place to those Irish monks who helped preserve a heritage of learning in Europe during what were known as “the Dark Ages”. We are especially proud of scholars such as Columbanus who placed a high value on the study of texts, reflection and meditation and who went on to establish many flourishing centres of learning in Europe at a time when the written word was in dramatic decline.

The lives and scholarship of Columbanus and his colleagues, with their emphasis on knowledge and learning, shone through in a Europe where the fall of the Roman Empire had led to economic and political fracturing, precipitating not just a loss of learning but a deep hostility to its practice. Today Columbanus is recognised as one of the earliest European visionaries; a visionary whose cultural influence on Europe would prove to be enormous and who, in the words of the French statesman Robert Schuman at the founding moment of the European Union, “is the patron saint of all those who now seek to build a United Europe”. 

In the spirit of Columbanus, then, I welcome you to Ireland and to Galway, as the current custodians of that heritage of European scholarship and intellectual life. I wish you well in the responsibilities that you carry for ensuring that universities and the life of scholars and students within them will be visionary and that what is visionary is not only made possible, but is privileged.

Today, the challenges for those entrusted with our institutions  of learning are quite different from the time of Columbanus, and I commend the European Universities Association for facilitating a wide exploration on the contemporary challenges facing Europe’s universities as they develop strategies to adapt to this changing environment.

The dedication of this year’s annual conference to the ‘digital campus’, then, has a strategic significance — supporting the exchange of knowledge and the pooling of such expertise and will enable us to collectively forge a future in which knowledge exchange will increasingly be routine rather than occasional.

The breadth of the programme for this conference provides an opportunity for discussion about the uses and the impact of technology on each of the three core roles of higher education institutions — teaching and learning; research; and engagement.

In exploring the many facets of these issues, this conference will allow the opportunity to learn from specialists, as well as from practitioners. It will also provide opportunities to hear how colleagues from across Europe have set about utilising technology to enhance provision in these three areas, as well as your having the opportunity to learn about the work of the National University of Ireland, Galway itself.

There can be no doubt that recent decades have witnessed a significant revolution in higher education and unprecedented change in both its reach and diversity. It has been a dynamic process, at least as radical as those in the 19th century when the concept of the research university developed, fundamentally changing the nature of the university.

It is my sincerest hope that we can embrace the possibilities of the new instruments of information acquisition, without losing the independent reflective intellectual atmosphere of the traditional universities. But if we are to achieve that balance, we must first recognise what is essential and timeless in the resource we possess in our universities, as social institutions and as intellectual infrastructure for future generations, rather than merely as centres for production of what are referred to as “the human resources” of an economic system of current period, a system that may be undergoing deep change, a change whose fundamental character we are missing.

At the outset, I want to make clear that I fully recognise that the digital age has undoubtedly already brought with it and delivered to us many advantages for scholars, including, for example, valuable opportunities to protect and preserve important aspects of our heritage and history.

Most recently, the impact of new technology on historical research was illustrated for me at the presentation of the 1916 Oral History Collection to the National Library.  We are currently marking the 100th anniversary of the Easter Rising of 1916, the revolutionary event which would lead to Irish independence. This Oral History Collection, to which I have referred, contains individual stories of both the sung and unsung heroes of that important chapter of our history. 

This digital collection was a striking reminder to me of how the availability of digitisation has in many ways democratised the study of history, allowing for a wider participation in its production, and a wider gathering of memories, one that brings new perspectives to events of the past.

For universities and archives, digitisation has opened up exciting possibilities, enabling new ways of generating, curating, and engaging with information. The collections of national theatres, public broadcasting, archives – can all now be accessed by remotely connected scholars. Digitisation allows for innovative modes of research and broadens the reach and effectiveness of scholarly communications.

This just one example of the great liberating potential of technology  in a world which is experiencing greatly increased mobility and displacement. One of the most exciting dimensions of the potential positive use of technology by scholars and students for higher education is that it liberates learning and the advancement of knowledge from the constraints of national borders, supporting international partnerships and facilitates a cooperation which is imperative if we are to address the many global challenges facing us.

At the same time, in the context of this information revolution,  I am conscious too of the continuing importance for society of the university setting; of the need to critique the domain assumptions about the teacher/student relationships; and of the need to analyse the nature of digital usage as a private or socially shared experience. The implications of technology for modes of speech and oratory, for clarity of expression, and adequacy of presentation are also immense. Indeed, in the context of new communication technologies, it might be argued that a diminished capacity for discourse has contributed to new forms of aggression, interrupted by the occasional cliché.

These are profound questions, which take on a heightened importance where universities are challenged to adjust to more complex and pluralist society, prompting further questions about the nature of the university itself: ‘What can universities be appropriately requested to deliver for society?’  ‘What should not be expected from them?’ ‘What is their role?’

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 U.K.’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’.

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 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.

Similarly, the political climate and the political assumptions of the day influence academic possibilities. There are interesting examples in the discipline of applied economics which could tell us something of the importance of the political response to one’s research. Werner Reichmann and Markus Schweiger have written of how the fortunes of two great Austrian intellectuals Paul Lazarsfeld and Friedrich A. Hayek differed. Hayek’s business cycle research found a political support, and had an immense recyclable influence. Lazersfeld’s sociology did not find such favour and languished. Policy of the day defeated the true empiricism of the life.

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.

My purpose this morning, then, is to suggest a recall of 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 an 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.

Max Weber, the great 19th century social theorist, responded to the events of his time in the second half of the nineteenth 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 which the Irish and European universities must embrace, insisting on remaining open to originality in theory and research, and committed to humanistic values in teaching. 

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.

At the pedagogical level, the increasing availability of on-line 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.

As a research subject, the role of the State as innovator or generator of social cohesion has to be recovered. Analysis of the role of the State has faded in recent decades of political research and has given way to applied studies, in an administrative sense, of the State’s actions. These studies may be important in themselves, but they are insufficient to a normative discourse on values, such as solidarity, interdependency, shared vulnerability and community. Such a necessary normative discourse has given way in the popular social science literature to a discourse of lifestyle and individual consumption.

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.

Individualism and the insatiable consumption to which they were invited and were accented over recent decades, and were put forward as alternatives to models of public good and welfare, perceived and presented as out of date collectivism. 

Within the social sciences we can identify also, from their response to current circumstances in Europe, a model of separatism that leaves us with an approach that is not sufficient at either an analytical, policy or normative level, and in which essential connections between different spheres of our social and political discourse have become fractured or even lost.

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.

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. 

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.

I have quoted before, here in this University, from The Second Glion Declaration, Universities and the Innovative Spirit, 2009 which suggests that it is in our universities that:

“the leaders of each new generation are nurtured; it is there that boundaries to our existing knowledge are explored and crossed; it is there that unfettered thinking can thrive and unconstrained intellectual partnerships can be created. It is there, within each new class, within each new generation that the future is forged.”

These are words worth repeating, and words which remind us that it is the duty of the university to engage in shaping, and not simply reacting to, the fourth industrial revolution.

It is essential also, that public citizen support for the necessary public investment in universities is secured – and that the benefits from this investment are retained within the universities themselves and demonstrated to a supporting public. The university must not be considered simply as a component of the market place. Moreover, the intellectual dimension of higher education is not one that can easily be measured, and universities must not be called on to perform solely in ways which lend themselves to what are contestable metric measures of performance.

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.

May I wish you well for your Conference and for the continuing vital work of your Association.

Beir Beannacht

Thank you.