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Book Review: Degrees of Nonsense, The Demise of The University in Ireland

May 13, 2012

Degrees of Nonsense: The Demise of The University in Ireland, Edited by Brendan Walsh

A Review by Martin O’Grady 

The first thing to be said about Degrees  of Nonsense is that this is an important book. It should be read by everyone who cares about our universities and everyone should care about them. That said, it is to be read much more because it begs rather than answers deeply important questions about what has, for some time now, been transpiring in higher education and in the Ireland which gives it its form. Answers will come after the right questions are asked and adequately debated.

I confess to having been somewhat misled by the title. Degrees of Nonsense is not to be taken literally. The book, though making some occasional references thereto, does not explore what degrees awarded by our universities tell us about the bearers. Grade inflation, for example, doesn’t get a mention.  That is a pity. Grade inflation and its concomitant secular erosion of standards is not just a symptom of a wider malaise in higher education. It is an enabling vehicle, which if it had been resisted determinedly by academics collectively, would have forestalled much of what is now being decried in this book. More of that anon.

Edited by Brendan Walsh, appropriately enough a lecturer in the History of Education at DCU, the book consists of ten contributions (including the foreword) from university academics unified around the theme that all is not well in Ireland’s halls of academe.

The introduction includes one sentence which, despite its length, bears quotation as it identifies the ideas running through all the subsequent contributions:

This volume has its origin in the troubling developments occurring in Ireland where universities are increasingly underfunded; conceptualised almost entirely as a means of preparation for the workplace; promoted as the most appropriate destination for every Leaving Certificate student; diversifying into a multitude of areas, some of which sit uneasily in higher education as historically understood; required to react immediately to the whirling weather-vane of political and economic imperative or whim; bedevilled by micromanagement and preposterous metrics and perhaps, most troubling subject to European and domestic principles of financing and regulation that are invasive and often deeply unsympathetic to scholarly work as traditionally understood.”

Immediately, it is apparent that the subject matter is neither small, simple nor homogenous. This results in a very eclectic set of contributions in content and employing styles and tones ranging from the philosophical and somewhat arcane to the socio-political and unashamedly polemic.

What are Universities for?

At the core of the debate in Degrees of Nonsense is the fundamental question of what universities are for: what is their rightful purpose in modern society? Most contributors seem, by and large, to be in agreement that their core purpose is the discovery and dissemination of knowledge; that knowledge is an end in itself, the search for which is not to be circumscribed by its subsequent application, which in any event cannot be known in advance. The main threat identified to this vision is the extent to which government has increasingly insisted that the universities be a tool of its economic policies; that knowledge is to be valued in proportion to what it contributes to the creation of material wealth.

Brendan Walsh questions the way the demand for ‘accountability,’ a requirement that, in itself, he says “is hardly contentious”, has been abused to exert control over the universities not on behalf of society at large but on behalf of the political, business and industrial classes. While formerly, he contends, there was trust that academics would engage in the disinterested pursuit of knowledge to the benefit of all, academics have been taken out of the driving seat and the show taken over by a management bureaucracy, which includes the Higher Education Authority, for the benefit of the classes identified above. The capture of the university by those narrow interests is a theme that re-echoes through the contributions, particularly in those of Tom Garvin, Paul Van Kampen and David Limond.

An Invasion of Box Tickers

Professor Tom Garvin

The issue which generates most heat in the book is what may be regarded as the proximate means by which the interests and values of the ‘market’ (read for that, those who have capital and deem it their inalienable right to accumulate ever more) are imposed within the universities. Here we come to the rise of the powerful new class of management bureaucrats, for which much derision and ire is reserved. “A Confederacy of Dunces,” “Micromanagement of the Intelligent by the Unintelligent”, “Invasion of Box Tickers,” “grey philistinism,” “indescribable vulgarity,” “growth of silliness,” “half educated and extremely authoritarian frauds,” are a selection of the choice phrases used by Tom Garvin in his delightful polemic on the management class in Irish universities (see also the recent Irish Times extract of this chapter) . Angry, yes, but he makes a good case that he is not engaging in hyperbole and one senses that his anger is justified. One, naturally, suspects that his choler is prompted by a sense of betrayal. Those managers, now possessed of such missionary zeal to bend academics to the will of their political and economic overlords, were themselves previously academics, even if not of the first rate as Garvin suggests. Gerard Casey says it plainly:

Professor Gerard Casey

“The pressure coming from government, the principal funding agency of many of the universities, is enormous and university administrators, instead of resisting those pressures and defending their staff, are in effect collaborating with the enemy in a quisling like manner,  outdoing each other to show that they can do more with less, which typically means that their academic staff will be forced to do more with less of everything except, unfortunately, less of those who are increasingly telling them what to do.”

It is a general truth that the traitor is always hated more viscerally than the original enemy. It is no accident that traitors have always been put to the sword with great alacrity in times of war.

Measurement Mania

Much space is given over in different contributions to the seemingly endless list of evaluation tools and metrics to which academia has been subjected, frequently imported inappropriately from dissimilar fields of activity and which mainly seem to elide the complexity inherent in academic work and to produce simple measures for the well-nigh immeasurable. Paul Van Kampen makes a fair stab at highlighting the fallacies and risks that arise in trying to quantify academia and academics as, indeed, does  Tom Garvin. It seems that there is no metric that cannot be gamed.  Once you submit to management by measure, there is no end to the distortions that are encouraged so as to magic up a figure to suit immediate objectives.

Knowledge at the Heart of the University Mission

Academics, being academics, may be in agreement that ‘knowledge’ is at the core of the university mission but they are not all necessarily at one about what ‘knowledge’ means or even if it exists.  Ronald Barnett engages with this epistemological theme in a contribution that I find unnecessarily turgid and obscure. Perhaps the subject matter demands an unusual language but I have to say that I am always a bit suspicious when language becomes such as to exclude reasonably literate readers who are unfamiliar with that particular field of discourse.

I am suspicious too when there is any suggestion that knowledge is entirely relative, constructed and lacking inherent validity or objectivity, not that Barnett is necessarily giving credence to that assertion. Neither does he appear to demonstrate adequate conviction on the matter.  Distinguishing what is true from what is false is difficult and the available tools may not always suffice. But, to deny the possibility is to fall prey to ‘nihilism.’

A Perspective from ‘Left of Field’

Nihilism is an accusation which Dennis O’Keefe levels at certain strains of thought within the academic world. O’Keefe locates all that is bad in higher education within state ownership and control and asserts with absolute confidence that privatisation of universities is the solution to all the problems. He makes some good points about the fallacies and failings within the current dispensation but fails entirely to make a convincing case that private ownership would offer any resolution. If the problem is that the capital owning business classes have been bending universities to their will and in their interests while they are in state ownership, how on earth could direct private ownership, inevitably by the self-same class, do anything but make matters much worse?

This conundrum is resolved when you realise that for Dennis O’Keefe, the state dog before whose barks the universities run is not wagged by the capital owning tail but by a tail consisting of academics and civil servants imbued with a peculiarly doctrinaire socialist or communist philosophy, an element within which is the ‘nihilistic’ bent. Some peculiar philosophies associated with the left have indeed shown evidence of influencing education policy in the past but I suspect that few academics would suggest that how higher education is currently run has its origins in the philosophies of the left. O’Keefe seems to be something of an interloper in this book pursuing a theme that is entirely different to the other contributors. That said, diversity of perspectives can be no bad thing.

An Enemy in the Tent?

The chapter by John G. Hughes also rests oddly in this book. He is a university Vice Chancellor and sounds as one might expect one of the new management class to sound, especially when addressing the other side on its own turf: equivocating, placatory but following the usual hymn sheet. His theme is “the importance of values-based leadership in the modern university.”  His panacea appears to be a ‘nicer,’ ‘more sensitive’ style of leadership. Beyond his criticisms of leadership style, he appears to disagree with nothing that is afoot in the universities. He accepts the primacy of the economic in defining the university mission, while paying lip service to other functions. Indeed, he fails to grasp the inherent conflict between priorities:  “My own view is that this tension between utility and traditional academic values is more imagined than real.” On funding too, he is right there with the rest of his managerial class, in favour of privatisation: “no realistic alternative to increased direct contributions from students has been identified.”  What about more taxes on the better off to pay for better funded higher education? I suppose that has not been identified. Basically, his message appears to be that everything would be fine in the universities if only there were better leaders. Perhaps, it is better followers that he should be calling for.

Looking Ahead

Dr. Brendan Walsh, Editor of Degrees of Nonsense

Though contributors vary in their hopes for the future, this is not an optimistic book overall. It is plain that the universities have been colonised by commercial interests and neo-liberal economic thought, the same forces that wrought such damage on our society through the insane speculation-fuelled property bubble. There are few signs of any change in that respect. As always, the prevailing forces, no matter how pernicious, have been able to recruit a class of insiders only too willing to do their bidding: Casey’s quislings.

Of course, if the thinking behind the current movement is crass, simplistic and philistine, expect those who leap on that particular bandwagon, to make their careers, to be more crass, simplistic and philistine than average. There is a natural selection process here. This may exonerate others who have not sought to join the managerial class but there is a source of blame for the current malaise in the universities from which few enough academics can honestly be exculpated. The massification and growth process is suggested by several contributors as in one way or another associated with the current problems. The absurd notion that universities “were the appropriate destination for every Leaving Certificate student” could not have taken root without grade inflation. Standards had to be seriously eroded to accommodate such growth. Every academic who serves as an examiner, and most do, should examine his or her conscience on this matter.

The role of standards’ erosion in contributing to the demise of the university was not addressed in this work. Perhaps that topic is for another book. Only when academics collectively engage wholeheartedly with that debate and each seeks out his or her own niche of responsibility can there be any hope of shaking off the pernicious grip of neo-liberal economic thinking, not only from our universities, but from society as a whole. As it is, Degrees of Nonsense is a very important contribution to the debate on what the future of the university should be in Ireland. It deserves to be widely read and its profound implications need to taken on board by everyone who desires, not just better universities, but a better Ireland.

Book Details

Publisher: Glasnevin Publishing (March 2012), Price: €20, Pages: 204.

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