The Ethical Emptiness of Higher Education Emptiness and #Brexit

ethics

License: Creative Commons 3 – CC BY-SA 3.0 Creator attribution: Nick Youngson – link to – http://nyphotographic.com/  http://www.thebluediamondgallery.com/highlighted/e/ethics.html

There have been a number of commentaries arguing that Irish higher education is well positioned to take advantage of #Brexit.  They have been notable for one thing – THE ABSENCE OF ANY SENSE OF ETHICS.

A recent example of this comes from one of Ireland’s leading economists, Brian Lucey from Trinity College Dublin.  In a blog post entitled “How to strangle an export industry” he advocates that,

Exports of  educational services from Ireland represent a potentially enormous market…This is a large body of exports.  It is responsible for approx. 1.75b in value added per annum

…that is, Education.ie can capture segments of the international student market from Britain.  He mentions, in particular, the English language teaching (whose standard in Ireland is appalling).  He notes that under pressure of reduced state funding of higher education HEIs increasingly look to other revenue streams – including international student fees.

BUT – where is the ethical content of this debate?  Are these human bodies to be reduced to columns in an accounting ledger?

In a paper my colleague Lisa Moran and I are presenting at the forthcoming Sociological Association of Ireland conference, we explore the ethical relationship between institutions and the ‘international’ students they seek to recruit*.  While there are many benefits to internationalisation, we also point to the ‘gendered danger’ that many women face when living and studying abroad and the micro-aggressions of racism.  We argue that HEIs are careless, if not reckless, in their relations with international students.

We argue that internationalisation demands an ethical response.  It means that we have to stop conceiving of international students as hosts that the higher education parasite feeds off.  We begin by recognising them first and foremost as persons and not ‘exports’.

* The paper is based on Lisa’s research as part of undertaking the MA in Academic Practice at NUIG

What if? Or, alternative ways to structure the HE curriculum

i-think-therefore-i-am-dangerous

What if we organised the curriculum around difficult knowledge and awkward issues?

My favourite ‘teaching’ (such an awkward term when applied to colleagues) is the MA in Academic Practice which is also host to a wider network of colleagues across the institution who are interested in looking at different aspects of higher education.

So why is this my favourite?

As well as a new set of colleagues undertaking inquiry into aspects of their academic practice (understanding student engagement through time spent on online resources, deconstruction of discourses and practices of internationalisation, exploring the pedagogic role of service learning in constructing ‘professional’ identities, examining facilitation of student online engagement in ethical issues) there were a number of people who were looking for a home within which to have rigorous and vigorous debate.  Some are doing doctorates in different institutions but wanted a ‘local’ space for critical discussion.  To facilitate both sets of participants it was proposed that we organise the sessions around both presentations of ongoing research and a ‘journal club’ type activity where we would focus on an article.

We have been focusing on the contested nature of academic practice, specifically struggles to define the role of the academic and the university in neo-liberal times.  This took us recently to a discussion by Jon Nixon on the values that could underpin a new conception of academic professionalism as part of the university and academic work as public goods.  This was extended recently by looking at the work of Melanie Walker.

Melanie Walker, and many others, are entailed in re-inventing public sector professional work fit for a post-Apartheid South Africa. This has necessitated questioning the role of universities and their central role in professional education.  The article demonstrated a distinct difference in academics’ priorities with British academics privileging (disciplinary) knowledge whereas the data from South Africa placed greater emphasis on ethical and public good responsibilities.

Go into any European university and we will see that covering and delivering disciplinary knowledge is the way the idea of curriculum is enacted.  Within this there is little space for serious consideration of the ethical content of professional practice.  When looking at institutions such as my own, they are engaged in producing graduates who will be leaders and decision makers – that is engineers who are making decisions about engineering projects rather than tightening the bolts.  Craig Calhoun has argued that because of this universities have a moral obligation to take seriously the ethical dimension.  This is not a call for some kind of social engineering but to ensure that our graduates have had the opportunity to practice the kinds of skills necessary for identifying and working through the dilemmas that they will confront.  For instance, law students will sit through lecture after lecture going through case law.  Case law deals with numerous dilemmas yet are often dealt with as disembedded and disembodied knowledge to be recalled in exams.

We wondered, then, whether there was a different way of envisioning the higher education curriculum, one that was structured around difficult knowledge and professional dilemmas.