Factory Farms for the Mind

The onset of recession has sparked a systematic assault on the notion of the public good in Ireland. The vilification of the public sector in the media mirrors the ambition of the government to erode the institutions of state provision. The political prejudices of Fianna Fail are only too apparent in their plans for third level institutions. In this essay, Colin Coulter takes a look at what the authors of the crisis have in mind for higher education in Ireland.



On Tuesday of this week (11 January 2011) the long awaited deliberations of the Higher Education Strategy Group headed by economist Dr Colin Hunt finally saw the light of day. The Hunt Report was unveiled to the Irish media by the Tánaiste and Minister for Education and Skills Mary Coughlan in the distinctly opulent surroundings of the recently opened National Convention Centre. The setting for the launch was – in a certain perverse sense at least – rather appropriate. The striking structure located in Dublin's Docklands is not merely an architectural marvel of sorts but also a fiscal ruse that serves to shift around half a million euro every week from the pockets of taxpayers into the grabbing hands of those shameless corporate welfare scroungers known collectively as Treasury Holdings. There could be few places more apt in which to rehearse yet again the kind of folly that passed for 'blue skies' thinking during the Celtic Tiger period than a building that has already in the few short months of its existence come to represent one of the more ludicrous of the many follies erected in the boom years.

The journalists gathered in the National Convention Centre heard Minister Coughlan express her appreciation for the work of Dr Hunt and his team of esteemed advisers. The Hunt Report contained, she insisted, 'detailed recommendations' that would facilitate the "development of a modern, flexible and responsive higher education system that is ready to meet the new challenges of the next twenty years in supporting Ireland's economic renewal and growth". The ringing endorsement of the text issued by the Tánaiste might be considered emblematic of the broader tendency of the Irish political establishment to heap praise upon those who deserve it least. The Hunt Report does not represent an exercise in radical new thinking that promises to propel us towards the brave new world of the 'smart economy.' The document to which the economist has lent his name trades in fact in a series of threadbare ideas that have been around for quite a while and that have worked out rather badly in a series of other settings, not least that of our nearest neighbours. In addition, the ruminations of Hunt and his colleagues do not, as some of the hype of the last few days would have us believe, mark a bold new departure in Irish higher education. On the contrary, the document merely confirms and amplifies the very specific and potentially ruinous course upon which third level institutions here embarked quite some time ago.

Anyone working in a third level institution over the last decade could hardly help but notice that the logic and lexicon of neoliberalism have become increasingly pervasive in Irish academic life. The slickly attired men of a certain age who typically secure leading positions within universities here clearly consider that they are running corporations and evidently regard education as a product to be marketed as one would any other commodity. This insidious corporatisation is expressed most keenly perhaps in a certain kind of language that has become so commonplace within universities of late that many academics do not even seem to notice it any longer. In recent times, students have become 'customers', knowledge has turned into a 'service' to be 'provided' and the various people who form what was once the university community have been transformed into 'stakeholders'. When confronted with the argument that the language of the boardroom has no place in an academic setting, the dapper gents in the college branded ties and cufflinks feign bewilderment and insist that these recently minted terms are entirely innocent signifiers that have no bearing on the nature of university life. This self-serving naivety seeks, of course, to obscure the reality that words serve not merely to signify the social world but to constitute it as well. The growing ubiquity of neoliberal terminology within third level institutions quickly and perhaps irrevocably alters what the university actually stands for. The recent appearance of terms like 'customer', 'service provider' and 'stakeholder' creates a discursive snare that will transform and, in time, destroy the purpose and nature of academic life. Once you have persuaded lecturers and students to embrace the language of the corporation it is not that big a leap to get them to accept the logic of the corporation as well.

"The term ‘equality’ only appears on three of the document’s 116 pages. ‘Economic’ features on 54 pages, ‘economy’ on 34 and ‘enterprise’ on 40"

The true significance of the Hunt Report is perhaps that it marks a confirmation and acceleration of the neoliberal turn within higher education in Ireland. The document does admittedly make many laudable claims about the humanist ambition and potential of academic life. It is contested that higher education is all about 'people and ideas' and that the university exists to nurture 'individual well-being' and to foster a 'spirit of enquiry and a strong sense of the value of learning'. At one point, it is even suggested that the overarching aim of Irish educational policy is 'the pursuit of equality'. While Dr Hunt and his team make all the right sort of idealistic, humanist noises that tend to make educationalists a little misty eyed, you can just tell that their hearts are not really in it. The real priorities of the report lie elsewhere and this is disclosed quite starkly in the frequency with which certain terms appear in the text. The authors of the Hunt Report insist that educational policy in Ireland is guided primarily by a spirit of egalitarianism. It is rather surprising then to discover that the term 'equality' appears on only three of the document's 116 pages. In clear contrast, 'economic' features on 54 separate pages, 'economy' on 34 and 'enterprise' on 40. The profoundly instrumentalist language of the document merely reveals the particular interests and agenda it is designed to promote.

At the heart of the Hunt Report is a vision of the university that clearly derives from the discredited doctrines of neoliberal capitalism. If the recommendations set out in the document were to be implemented in full, higher education in Ireland would not merely come to serve even more fully certain corporate interests, it would itself become a corporate interest. The principal role afforded to third level institutions is not that of generating pioneering scholarship or nurturing critical ways of thinking but rather of igniting 'Ireland's economic renewal and growth'. The substance of courses will increasingly mirror corporate interests, the funding of research will be driven by commercial imperatives, the decision to enroll as a student will increasingly be shaped not by what you want to study but rather by whether or not you can afford it.

The future of the university that is envisaged in the Hunt Report is a bleak and instrumentalist one. The principal casualties of the recommendations in the text will of course be those students who will in the next few years enroll in college only to find that they are expected to pay exorbitant fees for the privilege and invited to view their education as simply another, admittedly very expensive, commodity. Imagine what the experience of Irish students will be like in, say, a decade's time. It will presumably be very like that of their counterparts across the water in the last generation. Young and not so young people will set out to learn in third level institutions only to find that it costs the earth to do so, that they have to work all the hours the Good Lord sends in poorly paid jobs just to keep their heads above water, that many of the lecturers teaching them are increasingly demoralised by a working environment defined by corporatist values that almost nobody seems to really believe in, that they will leave not only with a degree of negligible value but also a whopping debt of €25,000 or more that they may never be able to pay off. Who in their right mind would regard that as progress? It's not as if we don't have a pretty good idea what will happen if the Hunt recommendations come to pass. The substance of the report mimics many of the developments that have happened in the UK over the last decade and a half. The neoliberal turn across the water has made an unholy mess of the British university system. And it will do the same to third level institutions here. But the Irish political class will, naturally, plough ahead regardless. The seductive power of neoliberal doctrine is evidently such that the mere facts of actual human experience are never allowed to get in the way of the pursuit of ideological purity.


Colin Hunt registers his bewilderment on hearing his namesake's plans for Irish higher education

While there has been considerable speculation about its substance since the early summer of last year, the recommendations of the Hunt Report were in fact fairly predictable. Anyone who wanted to get a sense in advance of what the Higher Education Strategy Group might propose would only have had to cast their eyes down the list of worthies that made up its membership. Hunt and his colleagues did not count among their number a single serving Irish academic. It is not difficult to see why. Anyone with experience of teaching in Irish universities who was worth their salt would have pointed out that the course charted in the Hunt Report would spell disaster for third level insitutions here. And that would have rather ruined the script. While academics were excluded from the Higher Education Strategy Group, bureaucratic and coporate interests were well to the fore. In fact, the team that produced the report was comprised more or less entirely of senior administrators and high ranking representatives of multinational capital. Given the composition of the group, the substance of its recommendations could scarcely come as a complete surprise to anyone. The Hunt Report was in effect composed by people who are, whether by professional training or personal inclination, accountants. It is entirely fitting then that the document should read as though written by cynics in the precise sense that Oscar Wilde ascribed to the term, that is, by people who know the price of everything and the value of absolutely nothing.

 Of the various representatives of multinational capital who comprised the Higher Education Strategy Group, the most significant was, of course, Dr Colin Hunt himself. While there has been some grumbling in the press about his performance as head of the body, there has been relatively little media interest in Hunt's background. A quick trawl around the internet reveals some rather telling biographical details. There are perhaps two aspects of Hunt's background that require some comment. The first is that the ascent of the economist to such a position of public prominence might be regarded as indicative of one of the more insidious trends that characterise Ireland during the recession. Since the demise of the Celtic Tiger, influential voices have been at pains to advise and induce a certain version of historical amnesia. We are encouraged to draw a line under the past, to accept that mistakes were made and that we need to move on. The intention of this advice is the calling of what is in effect a political and cultural amnesty. If what was said and done in the past is simply airbrushed out of the picture then the opportunity arises for all sorts of miscreants to come back out of the woodwork. Those who devised and implemented the policies that brought the country to its knees can claim that the slate has been wiped clean. Those who were cheerleaders of the boom can reinvent themselves as its sternest critics. Those who were authors of the crisis can secure one of the lucrative positions ostensibly designed to clear up the mess. A whole gallery of rogues suggests itself to illustrate the point. Step forward David McWilliams! Take a bow Jim O'Leary! All you inspired fortune tellers in the ESRI, come on down!

The growing list of beneficiaries of the historical amnesty called by the powerful since the onset of the recession has now evidently been extended to include the principal author of the Hunt Report. The curriculum vitae of Dr Hunt certainly makes for interesting reading. Among the positions that the economist has held in the past are those of Research Director and Chief Economist in Goodbody Stockbrokers and Head of Trading Research of Bank of Ireland Group. In the autumn of 2006, Dr Hunt was appointed to the position of Special Adviser to the then Minister of Finance, Brian Cowen. A year later, he moved on to a senior position in a multinational finance corporation. But we will return to that shortly. In sum, therefore, over the last decade Dr Hunt has been closely associated with a number of key financial institutions and policies in Ireland. The economist was a senior player in a financial sector that is widely held to be the main source of the collapse of the Irish economy. In addition, he was an adviser to the Minister of Finance at a time when decisions were made that are regarded as among the many that sparked the recession. It might be said, therefore, that Dr Hunt was a player – albeit a minor one – in the melodrama that marked the end of the Celtic Tiger. In some countries, this proximity to questionable commercial interests and questionable financial decisions might be sufficient to mark the end of a career, at least at a senior level. In the fractured moral universe of the Irish political elite, in contrast, being the author of other people's misery would appear to be grounds for promotion.

The second aspect of Dr Hunt's career that might be worth noting here is the other job that he does when he is not overseeing the deliberations of the Higher Education Strategy Group. Since the autumn of 2007, the economist has been the Director of the Irish branch of the Australian financial corporation, the Macquarie Group. This might seem a rather unlikely combination of roles until you consider what the report to which Dr Hunt has lent his name actually recommends. The direction that higher education is likely to take over the next generation will be shaped by a range of forces both inside and outside Ireland. Among the international influences that will shape public provision here and elsewhere is a series of arrangements convened by the World Trade Organisation under the umbrella of the General Agreement on Trade in Services (GATS). The rationale of the GATS is that those services that have in many countries traditionally been provided by the state – education, health, transport, waste disposal etc. - should be open to competition from transnational corporations. The provisions of the Hunt Report clearly chime with this. If the strategy outlined by the Higher Education Strategy Group is implemented fully there will be rich pickings to be had in Irish universities for local and global capital alike. The introduction of fees will in time generate billions of euro for companies offering and collecting loans; the further skewing of research funding towards commerical interests will represent an increasingly substantial subsidy to a host of corporations; the expansion of spending in third level institutions will generate fat contracts for services and infrastructure. In the longer term, the course mapped out in the Hunt Report even has the potential to lead to the wholesale privatisation of Irish universities. Under the terms of the GATS, only those services that are free of charge are exempt from the prospect of provision by foreign corporations. With the introduction of bona fide fees, the conditions and the incentives will exist for universities to make the final transition to being fully fledged private corporations.

"Since the demise of the Celtic Tiger, influential voices have been at pains to advise and induce a certain version of historical amnesia"

The changes that the Hunt Report will introduce to higher education will, therefore, offer a field day to a range of corporate interests. One of these – the Macquarie Group - is the multinational concern that counts the author of the document as an employee. The website of the corporation's Irish incarnation, Macquarie Partnerships for Ireland, is a little coy when it comes to detail but is still worth a look. According to the site, MPFI aims to play "an active role in the Irish Public Private Partnership (PPP) market across a range of infrastructure sectors including: healthcare, education, road, leisure, rail, government buildings, general accommodation and housing". It would appear that this substantial ambition may be about to bear fruit. In December 2005, the then Minister for Education and Skills Mary Hanafin announced an ambitious infrastructural programme that would see seventeen buildings projects undertaken in third level institutions with a combination of public and private money. These projects were put out to tender and the successful bid is due to be announced before the end of March. The short list of contenders for these lucrative contracts consists of three bidders including a consortium headed by the Macquarie Group. In this venture, the Australian corporation has joined forces with John Sisk & Son (Holdings) Limited and Pierse Contracting. Given the track record of these two companies in securing contracts for public infrastructural projects in Ireland, the consortium may well be the front runner in the tender process. All of this detail tends to point us to towards a rather disquieting conclusion. It would appear that the principal author of a report that will transform Irish higher education in ways that will generate fortunes for private companies is also an employee of one of the transnational corporations that has already ably positioned itself to get its snout in the vast trough of public money that his report is in the process of creating.

If we required yet another reminder of the questionable practice that often passes for 'governance' in this part of the world, then that would probably be a pretty striking one. On Wednesday evening, I had the singular fortune to be watching the RTE news when Mary Coughlan greeted with indignation the suggestion that her party had allowed the boundaries between corporate interests and public policy to become blurred. Maybe she should have cast her mind back 24 hours earlier to the launch of a document that fails to maintain precisely that crucial distinction. The soon to be former Tánaiste clearly has a distinctly short memory. Ours need to be rather longer.



Colin Coulter teaches Sociology in NUI Maynooth

(Image: Student protest 3 November 2010. Courtesy of @ronanmooney via twitpic: http://twitpic.com/33k7cw)