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Dublin: 17 °C Friday 31 October, 2014

Column: Cutting grants isn’t just bad for students – it’s bad for Ireland

The boom taught us the danger of ignoring inconvenient truths, writes Miles Link – so what are we doing with cuts to the universities?

Miles Link

FOR A GENERATION of emerging scholars, the whole of their adult lives has been an experience of constant public crisis.

Experience has taught them that ‘reform’ and ‘innovation’ more often than not mean cutbacks, privatisation and commodification. The latest, we learn, is the prospect of having funding for new postgraduates cut off completely.

Even if the proposal to end postgraduates’ grants is another example of the increasingly familiar ‘will they-won’t they?’ pre-Budget theatre, it demonstrates how the Government truly sees higher education: nice, worthwhile maybe, but ultimately inessential. In such a context, the progressive slide downwards by Ireland’s academic institutions in international standings is unsurprising.

Just as serious as the threat of emigration by a generation of students is the threat of losing Ireland’s prestige in the international community. In plain terms, the country cannot sell an image of an intellectual Ireland to tourists — the Ireland of James Joyce, or Elizabeth Bowen, or, yes, Michael D Higgins — while simultaneously cutting off its scholars at the knees.

Cutting postgraduate grants would be much more than a problem of presentation, however. It constitutes a part of the continuous ceding of ground to an idea poisonous to Irish universities as a whole: that they must serve private economic interests.

Such is the product of the mentality that university research exists solely to generate ideas for business. And so, at the bottom of this view of the university — as a combination job training centre and enterprise cabal — is a view of education as an industrial process, a sort of Ikea manual for putting together compliant workers.

This mentality concerns itself solely with ‘upskilling’ (which is not actually a word) and ‘transferable skills’ (which is a coded expression meaning qualities that make someone more economically valuable without wasting any time nurturing their spirit). Thus we have the true nature of this reformed university: an education that does nothing to lead the student to insight, personal or otherwise.

‘What is a university supposed to do?’

Here we run into a vital question: what is a university supposed to do? Well, support for higher education stems partly from a desire to live in a society that values learning in and of itself. Nevertheless, there is a basic relationship between the university and the public that demands our attention. There really shouldn’t be this artificial distinction between ‘pure’ academic research and the university’s obligation to the body politic. The one mission informs the other: universities ask how the world works, what must be done, how things can be changed for the better. An attack on postgraduates is an attack on the idea of the university as a public institution.

If we accept academic inquiry as a legitimate pursuit, we must accept that such inquiry requires the freedom to say things that business, politics or the public might not necessarily want to hear. The oft-heard refrain that ‘there is no alternative’ to our economic situation, for example, should be an alarming statement to postgraduate scholars of history, or international relations, or even the arts. These are researchers for whom one-dimensional answers delivered by authoritarian fiat are simply unacceptable.

Anecdotally, I do not know of any postgraduate student, including myself, who does not supplement his or her funding with some kind of paid job. And yet, postgraduates attack their subject with a missionary zeal. Few other pursuits can persuade you that poring over data in a library until three o’clock on a Saturday morning is a good idea. If postgraduates cannot find opportunities to study in Ireland, they will go elsewhere, and they will take their energies with them. Those who cannot go will be forced to abandon their education — a tremendous waste.

The argument will come back that ‘savings must be made’ in education. I must point these people to the Irish Times’s list of the hundred best-paid people in Irish education from last year: rather thin on lecturers and grant recipients, while flush with administrators, management and top brass. Such officials often seem unable to comprehend how bleak prospects appear for graduate students simply looking to apply their talents, if such talents are not set in the terms of venture capitalism.

The question, then, is how best to guide academia’s ongoing transformation in a way that does not neglect the academics. Ireland has seen, just in this past decade, how dangerous it can be for a society to close itself off from raising questions and challenging ideas. I ask Minister Quinn: how will restricting access to education, and thus shutting down thought, help matters?

Miles Link is a third-year English studies PhD student in Ireland.

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