Big tech will not save us

‘Universities should work more closely with industries, which are the key players in society, and listen more to their customers.’ How depressing is this opening for what is meant to be a day that nurtures inspiration about education?

Last week, I found myself sitting in the beautiful Aula, excited about the keynote and panel discussion as part of the ENLIGHT mid-year meeting. ENLIGHT is a coalition of universities that aim to ‘undertake a fundamental transformation of European higher education’, a future-thinking idea which holds amazing potential.

Obviously, I attended this event with high expectations, but to my disappointment, the discussion centred around competition, talent, and profit. My take-home messages are that European universities cannot compete with the elite universities in the US; that we need to work closely with industries because tech companies and especially AI are leading our future; and that students are our customers and that we should focus on preparing them for the labour market.

So the university is seen not as a place to think and learn and work towards societal change, but as a place that serves the economy: the neoliberal university.

As I’m sitiing there, my attention quickly shifts away from the discussion, mostly as a self-defense mechanism to not feel completely demoralised. I am thinking about how internationalisation has shaped the demographics of the university classroom and how the pandemic impacted our lives in ways that still remain incomprehensible.

How can we transform higher education if we remain oblivious to current societal challenges?

I’m thinking about how some human lives continue to be worth less than others and how refugees are drowning in the Mediterranean Sea every day. I’m thinking about the ten million Ukrainians who fled their homes.

Closer to home, the Netherlands is hesitantly attempting to deal with its colonizing past, one of the many issues that are causing societal polarization.

The absence of these issues from the discussion puzzles me. How can we transform higher education if we remain oblivious to current societal challenges?

I wonder why the social sciences and humanities were hardly mentioned, despite their crucial role in addressing these challenges through research on forced migration, human population dynamics, AI biases, gender-based violence, polarisation, and climate inequities, just to name a few.

I am surprised that interdisciplinarity was not at the core of the panel discussion, given that most of the current societal challenges are socioscientific in nature and transcend disciplinary borders.

To be clear, my goal is not to draw attention away from the great potential of a coalition of European universities. My intent is to invite us to step outside our overprivileged bubbles and face the world, which is sinking both literally and metaphorically. It’s only then that we can conceptualise a transformation of higher education that actually reflects societal realities.

Big tech companies will not save us. Social sciences and the humanities will do this, by articulating alternative narratives of success that resist the neoliberal university and the perception of higher education as a marketplace.




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