The Ethical Emptiness of Higher Education Emptiness and #Brexit


License: Creative Commons 3 – CC BY-SA 3.0 Creator attribution: Nick Youngson – link to –

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, 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

Táim ag dul go Béal Feirste – I’m off to Belfast


The library of El Escorial Photo by Xauxa Håkan Svensson  CC BY-SA 3.0

I am off to Belfast/Béal Feirste soon for the Sociological Association of Ireland Annual Conference.  I will write more about the papers and the conference later.

I will be giving two papers this year:

‘Biographies of Internationalisation’: Methodological reflections on using the Biographical Narrative Interpretive Method (BNIM) to capture international student’s discourses and policy narratives – Speaking to Policy Speaking to Institutions (written with my colleague Lisa Moran)

How, as sociologists, do we speak to policy makers, and in this case to institutional leaders in higher education? And how do we do this in a way that troubles dominant discourses? This paper focuses upon a qualitative, Biographical Narrative Interpretive Method (BNIM) study of ‘knowledge cultures’ (Tsouvalis et al. 2000), and narratives of internationalisation that are embedded within international students’ biographies. Drawing upon qualitative materials from a biographical research study of 6 students categorised as ‘international’ in one Irish university, the paper illustrates areas of confluence and convergence in international student narratives about internationalisation and ‘storylines’ that appear in Irish policy on internationalisation. The argument in this paper is threefold; firstly, that the BNIM approach (Wengraf 2001) which elicits participants’ memories, knowledge and everyday ‘life worlds’ goes farther than some ‘conventional’ approaches to interviewing in capturing how international students recreate international identities, ‘negotiate’ insider/outsider distinctions and processes of stereotyping and labelling. Secondly, it is argued that how international students interpret internationalisation as a ‘lived experience’ and express these understandings through narrative is intricately bound to how they negotiate international identities. Thirdly, we argue that the kinds of narrative generated by the BNIM approach enables us to ‘trouble’ dominant discourses of internationalisation by inviting an ethic of openness to the ‘other’ and learn from rather than just learn about the experience of internationalisation students. Such an approach helps us to think higher education ‘otherwise’.

Tsouvalis, J., Seymour, S. and Watkins, C. (2000) ‘Exploring knowledge cultures: Precision Farming, Yield Mapping, and the Expert/Farmer Interface’ Environment and Planning A 32(5): 909-924

Wengraf, T. (2001) Qualitative Research Interviewing Biographic, Narrative and Semi-Structured Approaches London: Sage


Sociology of Irish Higher Education or An Irish Sociology of Higher Education? The Challenge of Southern Theory.

What would happen if we viewed Irish higher education through the lens of southern theory? Southern theory argues that dominant epistemologies appear as if from no particular geohistorical location, so pertaining to be universal. Yet, these epistemologies are reflections of and inherent in the imperialism and colonialism of the metropolitan centres of Western Europe and North America. Universal knowledge is, in fact, the imperialism of Europe’s parochialism1&2 and universities have been implicit in epistemic violence as a basis for colonial power3. We need to ask whether, in interpreting Irish higher education, we have simply imported the thematic concerns of the metropole, accepted a subaltern position, and so neglected to develop a unique perspective that takes seriously Ireland as a post-colony4.

What might an Irish sociology of Higher Education look like?

  • This sociology would acknowledge that it speaks from somewhere, emerges from a particular geohistorical experience of colonialism, settler colonialism, nationalist nation-building, and globalization;
  • It would seek to re-story the history and dynamics of higher education in Ireland from that perspective, working with, beyond, and against the dominant concepts of the metropole;
  • It would speak between epistemologies5, critiquing both the continuing coloniality of power and nationalist ideology – an ecology of knowledge6.

1Mignolo, D. (2000) The Geopolitics of Knowledge and the Colonial Difference, South Atlantic Quarterly 101(1): 57–96.

2Quijano, A. (2007) Coloniality and Modernity/Rationality, Cultural Studies 21(2): 168–78.

3Grosfoguel, R. (2013) The Structure of Knowledge in Westernized Universities: Epistemic Racism/Sexism and the Four Genocides/Epistemicides of the Long 16th Century. Human Architecture: Journal of the Sociology of Self-Knowledge 11(1): 73-90.

4Connell, R. (2007) Southern Theory: The Global Dynamics of Knowledge in Social Science. Cambridge: Polity Press.

5Khatibi, A. (1990) Love in Two Languages. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

6Santos, S. (2014) Epistemologies of the South. Justice against Epistemicide. London: Paradigm.