Last week, Minister for Further Education and Higher Education Simon Harris announced an initiative to abolish or at least reduce the annual fee of €3,000 Irish students pay to access undergraduate courses.
At first glance, this seems like an excellent idea: it removes a financial barrier that could be preventing less-affluent individuals from taking advantage of higher education and the life-changing opportunities it can bring.
I would argue that the situation on the ground is a little different.
I teach philosophy at Maynooth University, where I meet undergraduate and graduate students in large and small modules. I’m also the head of the department and get to talk to colleagues from all over the university. This is what the image tends to look like from a lecturer’s perspective.
The colleagues assume that on average only about half of the students in a module show up for class. The proportion of participating students continues to decrease over the course of the semester. So a class that started with a theoretical enrollment of 200 can be reduced to 40 in the final week.
Covid has exacerbated the situation – but not fundamentally changed it. Let’s not even get into the question of whether the participating students are willing to put serious work into tasks like reading and essay writing. Yes, fortunately we teach some excellent students. The majority just rummage through.
There are many reasons why students miss so many courses. They range from serious family problems, illness and depression to financial difficulties, work-related scheduling conflicts – and plain laziness. Some students try to keep up with their studies despite real obstacles—but others don’t care enough to even pretend to be interested.
I sometimes have the impression that students don’t appreciate their education enough. It’s somewhere among the things they want to do, but it’s not high on the agenda. Almost everything else seems more important.
This could be a cultural issue.
In Ireland, as elsewhere, a college degree is increasingly seen as the minimum requirement for jobs that support the middle class. Thus a young person who may not have any particular inclination to go beyond secondary school feels compelled to study – just for the sake of the slip of paper promised at the end.
It is not surprising that this attitude is reflected in a lack of enthusiasm for studying. As a result, a fog descends on the university community: because enthusiasm is contagious, but so is cynicism.
This applies to both students and teachers. It’s not easy for educators to stay upbeat and engaged when they often struggle with learning resistance and classrooms feel like they’re inhabited by zombies. But I noticed something else here. When I teach first-year students, I find an engaged, even passionate, crowd.
This may have something to do with the topic: In the introductory philosophy module, we read excerpts from some of the great texts of Western philosophy – from Plato to Heidegger – and deal with fundamental questions of life.
We open the semester with Plato’s famous allegory of the cave, in which people were imprisoned in a cave all their lives and could only see images projected onto a wall. They don’t even realize that the images are images, nor do they know who controls the projection.
Could the cave be a metaphor for the digital age? Since every single student in this class grew up basically unable to take their eyes off their cell phone for even a minute, they understand the question and its importance.
We also read parts of Plato’s dialogue about love, which symposium — a topic that interests most 18 and 19 year olds. I see bright eyes, overhear discussions about the texts outside of class, hear stories from students who went to the library to read the whole book, eager to read more than the few photocopied pages I distributed .
This is education. What a joy!
When I meet the same third year students again, a tragedy has struck – most of them have been turned into zombies.
Is it the university environment itself that contributes to lethargy and cynicism? I have to conclude that this is at least a factor.
Perhaps we no longer teach enough material that speaks to our students’ existential aspirations. Maybe they basically want more than just a middle-class salary?
Maybe they want to discover truth and beauty, to live a life on a higher level than the purely material success that our society measures in terms of production and consumption.
And perhaps too much of what we teach at the university level is either simply geared towards professional skills or is so removed from the real-world experience of the students that many lose interest.
I’ll just hint at what I mean: perhaps these young people would enjoy reading a few Yeats, Kavanagh, or Murdoch more than being caught up on the latest developments in theories of gender, race, and intersectionality (this is an exploration of all the different, mutually reinforcing ways a person can be oppressed).
But back to the 3,000 euro question. Do we need to make higher education cheaper to increase access?
I’m not sure if this is the solution. Real education is something very valuable. This value should be reflected in the fact that college education requires a certain amount of financial sacrifice.
Of course, we want to avoid that a talented student from a disadvantaged background cannot afford to study. But that is a scenario that can be addressed through tuition waivers and scholarships. It does not require the elimination of all fees.
Finally, financial issues aside, I suggest that as a society we need to rethink what higher education is for.
Currently, it is mainly used for basic employability certification and vocational training. At the same time, universities are increasingly driven by political agendas, some more rewarding than others.
But what about the elevation of the soul? The study of the human condition in all its greatness and fragility? The discovery that in spite of fallenness and sin there is truth, goodness and beauty?
This is what ultimately defines the university. If we forget, we’ll all become zombies before long.
Philipp W. Rosemann MRIA is Professor of Philosophy at Maynooth University
https://www.independent.ie/opinion/comment/a-university-professor-writes-why-were-failing-the-campus-zombies-41626141.html A university professor writes: Why we are abandoning the campus zombies