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Taking the measure of higher education: extravagant claims, persistent inequalities and transformative possibilities

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Venue: Birkbeck Main Building, B20

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Taking the measure of higher education: extravagant claims, persistent inequalities and transformative possibilities

Policymakers believe that access to higher education courses which produce ‘employable’ graduates can solve an enormous range of problems, including tackling deeply-rooted social class inequalities. However, the research I will discuss in this presentation - done with working class university students and graduates over the past decade - indicates we should have little faith in the power of higher education to lead to egalitarian social change or even to offer secure pathways for upward social mobility. On the contrary, a great many graduates find themselves living and working in highly precarious conditions after university, often saddled with debt. We also know that inequalities in power and wealth across society have increased sharply in recent decades even though access to university education has become more open. In the light of this the extravagant claims made about universities promoting equality within a ‘knowledge economy’ seem very threadbare indeed.

Yet faith in higher education abides in many quarters. This faith may be misplaced but it should not be simply discounted, it discloses something important about how we imagine education in society. It also offers some clues to what we can build upon and what we should do differently in universities. To explore this the presentation will address five questions prompted by the research. Why do excessive claims about higher education remain so common in policy and everyday life? How might university staff respond honestly to the aspirations and hopes promoted by policy and supported within popular culture? Why do many graduates, even when their experiences in higher education and in the labour market are indifferent or even negative, say they still value the time they spent higher education? How can we build upon what is already valued by students? And in this fragile, interdependent and highly unequal world under what circumstances, and to what extent, can universities contribute to egalitarian social change?

The aim of reflecting on these questions is to offer a critical and realistic account of what is, and might be, possible through higher education which I hope will spark discussion amongst the participants at the session about the limits and transformative possibilities of higher education.

Fergal Finnegan is a lecturer at the Department of Adult and Community Education, Maynooth University, National University of Ireland and is a director of the Doctorate in Higher and Adult Education programme. His background is in community adult education and his research interests include social movements, biographical research, social class and higher education with a particular interest in critical pedagogy, critical realism and Pierre Bourdieu. He has recently co-authored the book Access and Widening Participation in Irish Higher Education for Palgrave Macmillan as well as edited a book for Routledge based on a comparative study of non-traditional students across Europe entitled Student Voices on Inequalities: Challenges for Theory, Policy and Practice in a Time of Change. Fergal is one of the editors of the international Journal of Transformative Educationand is an active member of the European Society Research on Education of Adults (ESREA).

Fergal Finnegan became interested in issues of community development and equality through his work as a community educator in Dublin. He is now a lecturer at the Department of Adult and Community Education, Maynooth University where he is a co-director of the Doctorate in Higher and Adult Education programme. His research interests include social movements, popular education, biographical research, social class and equality and higher education.

This is a free lecture but booking is required. Please click this link to book your place. 

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Dr Fergal Finnegan