Tertiary Education: neither an industry nor an ivory tower

This article was prompted by the author’s reading of Frans Camilleri’s “Tertiary Education for the new Economy,” published on May 22nd, 2021.

In the last forty years, tertiary education has become regularly misconstrued as being somehow disconnected from the economy. A lack of funding has become commonplace and when the cuts arrive, the first to go are the arts and humanities. On the rare occasion that the arts and humanities are given a stay of execution, the demand for their legitimation often comes down to bean-counting—mostly fashioned by social scientific methods that come closer to glorified journalism than science. This is attested by how many faculties and schools found themselves closed down, entire colleges merged, just as endless processes of streamlining and economising have become l’ordre du jour for tertiary education across Britain, Europe, the US and Australasia. 

What is perhaps more astonishing (though not surprising) is that this onslaught on tertiary education is not the preserve of a particular side of the political equation. Many on the left still hold onto the fallacy of a “conservative” university reserved for the elites. The centrist’s mantra is that of accountability and cost effectiveness, where, we are told, tertiary education “needs to become more relevant” to (meaning, instrumentalised by) the economy.

Curiously, both leftist and centrist arguments are merged in the approach by which, in the last decade, neo-Cons and Trumpians have battled against State Universities. In the United States many republicans are wholly beholden by the myth that universities are nests for the “liberal elites” and “Marxists” who fail to connect with the needs of the people and the economy. If this sounds incredulous, find time and watch the film-feature Starving the Beast (first screened in 2016) to get the full picture.

The Idea of a university

St. John Henry Newman’s The Idea of a University (1852/58), together with two other works by the same name by German-Swiss philosopher and psychiatrist Karl Jaspers (written in 1923 and 1946) and Brazilian intellectual Alvaro Vieira Pinto’s A questão da universidade (1962) are just four of many tomes written about tertiary education, its role, history and future.

In his Philosophical Autobiography (1957), Jaspers revisits what he calls “the Occidental idea of the university” to which he owes to himself “and to its, however blurred” nature, something that “is really quite extraordinary.” He shows how, “complete freedom in our era is like a fairy-tale” and “so is the modest empirical existence with just one occupation: to think; and – the necessary calm for this.” Then, he elaborates:

The temptations of the institution are great, but not compelling: the scatter-brainedness – the emptiness, whenever administration occupied one for a time to the exclusion of everything else – the busy idleness. The freedom of the professor, which may never submit to any kind of control, may, it is true, seduce a specific individual to laziness; but it is also the freedom to dream, to that apparent do-nothing of which no one knows what actually occurs. Here lies the source of everything essential. Whoever is not willing to put up with failure of some individuals, would have to destroy with freedom at the same time the productivity and with that the spirit of the university.

Today, Jasper’s argument is at best ignored and at worst derided by well-groomed politicians, their fellow policy makers, economists and all manner of managers who have come to regard the university as a “knowledge industry.” But before one reaches out to old clichés and dismiss him as another “academic with his head in the clouds,” one must bear in mind that though the most mild-mannered and polite of scholars that have ever occupied the halls of academe, Jaspers was no stranger to the rough realities found “out there”.

The myth of an ivory tower

To speak of an “inside” and “outside” is a myth that continues to be all too easily presumed. As a fact, no academic is privileged by the safe “inside” of an institution, just as no tertiary institution is untouched by reality. For academics there are no ivory towers awaiting them. Rather, for decades, tertiary education has been systematically drained of funding, so much so that it continues to reinvent itself in order to avoid being totally disfigured. What Jaspers calls “the freedom to dream” has to do with an autonomy that carries its heavy responsibility and not a ticket out of real life and its demands.

For decades, tertiary education has been systematically drained of funding, so much so that it continues to reinvent itself in order to avoid being totally disfigured.

Those who have ever picked up a biography of great minds like Jaspers’ and others who were confronted by history in the 1930s, know very well why he lays claim for what he calls the “right to think” and “the necessary calm” for it. To start with, he directly experienced the virtual manipulation and obliteration of the university by the State and its corporate allies. He lost his right to teach in universities because he was married to a Jew and because he refused to adhere to Hitler’s creed.

As a scientist and philosopher, Jaspers had no time for instrumentalism—whether it happened to be positivist or idealist. Neither did he adhere to the flat-earther notion that politics is simply a rubber-band stretched from left to right with a virtuous compromise somewhere in between. Like many others who argued for autonomy as a way of moving beyond the heteronomous limits set by the here and now, Jaspers had all the credentials to say what he said without being denounced as some armchair critic. No wonder that after the War, the new West German state asked him to re-establish his old university and to play a central role in the restoration of tertiary education.

In contrast with the decades that followed WWII, which witnessed considerable growth and wider access to the tertiary educational sector in Europe and beyond, the last few decades of the 20th century have witnessed a systemic assault on the idea of the university as dreamt by Jaspers and many others. This decline was mostly marked by the Reagan-Thatcher era and strangely consolidated in the Clinton-Blairite years.

The Maltese context

Though the debate over tertiary education is perennial, in 21st century Malta it has become pretty much noncommittal, especially since the PL and PN have taken an indistinguishable stand over the matter. Amidst all manner of declarations by ministers, politicians and an assorted number of experts and policy makers, there is nothing but hot air—whether this comes clad in lofty ideals or in statistical arguments for a “new” economy where sadly, and yet again, the proverbial wood cannot be seen for the trees.

However, there was a time where the debate on tertiary education was much more meaningful. I remember my younger self writing about this in Il-Ħsieb and the MUT’s The Teacher when in the 1980s I was a university student-worker. Then I did not take any side in the expected Nationalist-vs-Labour argument, but I dared take a different view which reclaimed and defended the notion of an autonomous university while I also warned against autonomy becoming a conservative fig leaf to instrumentalise higher education.

I remember how then I was not spared by either side, and I even clashed with the big beasts of the day. My colleague and friend Peter Mayo discussed the debate on tertiary education extensively in his seminal article “The Worker-Student Scheme 1978-1987. Consistencies and Contradictions in Labour’s Socialist Politics”, which was published in Revisiting Labour History (edited by John Chircop and published by Horizons in 2012)—an article which demands solid attention and study.

Yet far from yelling “Hands off the university!” here my argument is that tertiary education is neither an instrument nor an industry, and in Malta this is no different from anywhere else. Nor is tertiary education a secluded tower where academics and students hide from the world. The last thing that higher and further education need is to have to seek legitimation by proclaiming their relevance to the economy (as if the opposite were true).

The last thing that higher and further education need is to have to seek legitimation by proclaiming their relevance to the economy.

We need to have a more nuanced discussion about the role and nature of tertiary education. More so we need to contextualise this within the wider context of schooling. After all, this is not just the domain of universities and polytechnics, even when we always end up talking about them.  

What is more tragic is how both the PL and PN decided to keep shtum over the matter because ultimately, they do not want to risk losing a single vote either way. Alas, what seems to matter for politicians is that Malta’s schooled imaginary is secured in its myth of education as a rat race, resulting in the most abject forms of social and economic exclusion. In the meantime, a sizeable chunk of the younger generation is simply lost within the fallacy by which education continues to be structured as an industry, where waste and scarcity are key to a consumerist structure that sustains a “new” economy by its old, inequitable and unjust ways.


John Baldacchino is Professor of Art and Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison in the United States.

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Frans Camilleri
Frans Camilleri
3 years ago

Brilliant article by Prof Baldacchino. It is amazing how many societies owe their development to the work of graduates but find it difficult to give universities the funds they deserve

John Baldacchino
John Baldacchino
3 years ago