by Greg Mayer
In a wide-ranging speech at a conference on academic freedom, Michael Higgins, the President of Ireland, has diagnosed the ills of the university in the western democracies. Unlike Bill Maher, who correctly senses that something is rotten in the state of higher education, but, as Jerry noted, has been unable to come up with a coherent critique, President Higgins hits the nail on the head. He decries the neoliberal consensus on higher education, the “market forces and the inexorable drive towards a utilitarian reductionism that is now so pervasive.”
A prime symptom of what Higgins describes as “the increasingly market orientation of the modern university” is that “student success” has become a term of art among college administrators, a metric to be increased, but which is not closely related to the acquisition of knowledge or skills. Higgins gets this precisely right (emphasis added):
Academic courses are now viewed as economic units whose success is too often judged in terms of arbitrary quantitative outputs of graduates, as opposed to the quality of the courses and the standards of academic excellence achieved by those participating in them.
This is a textbook example of Goodhart’s Law: “When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure,” or the closely related Campbell’s Law: “[O]nce a metric has been identified as a primary indicator for success, its ability to accurately measure success tends to be compromised.” Since “student success” is defined as “output of graduates”, anything that slows down graduation (such as academic requirements or low grades) is a barrier to success, which must be eliminated. Higgins nails this, too:
The quality of university degrees, too, continues to be a source of great concern, with evidence of grade inflation that, alas, does not reflect improved standards of scholarship, but rather an ongoing slip in examination standards, emanating from pressure, sourced internally and external to the university, to report the achievement of continually higher ‘outputs’.
In a delightfully allusive comment, Higgins suggests that students need to be taught what universities are for:
May I conclude with a very modest proposal that could be easily implemented: teach a module on the nature and role of the university, including the cornerstone of academic freedom, to every incoming university student, raising awareness of the importance of such freedom and the critical, now precarious, position of the university in contemporary society
I commend his proposal, and would add that university leaders should be required to undergo similar training; they, too, seem no longer to know what they are for. As Higgins puts it
[U]niversity provosts, presidents and rectors now often describe and introduce themselves as CEOs of multi-million euro enterprises rather than as academics first and foremost whose main responsibility might be to defend and cultivate the intellectual life of their academic institutions, facilitating an enriching learning environment for staff and students alike.
I don’t know much about Higgins. His office is largely ceremonial, like the Queen’s. He’s had a long career in politics, but he seems to have picked up some academic chops along the way. As I mentioned, the talk is wide-ranging, and I’ve only highlighted a couple of worthy points here; there are many others. The full text of his talk is available here.
h/t Brian Leiter