The usefulness of the virus in higher education | Opinion

The current Minister of Science, Technology and Higher Education (MCTES) launched, in May 2020, a campaign to which he gave the title “Skills 4 post-Covid – Skills for the future”. It is not credible that he acted under the influence of an ineffable aversion to the Portuguese language or because he believed that with a half-Portuguese half-English title, he could have bought a dose of internationalist rise for his project. Was the campaign triggered by the pandemic or is there a mistake here?

For the MCTES, the campaign aims to “accelerate the modernization of higher education and make it more suited to the needs of our society”, an “adjustment” to always be made “in close collaboration with the labor market and employers” and aimed at “deepening the skills of the new generations”. Because “one of the key objectives of higher education is to prepare students for a productive and rewarding professional career”.

What we want, says the minister, is to initiate a “debate within higher education and research institutions” to identify the laws that must be changed to “bring about these innovative changes” so necessary. to correct the harmful maladjustment of the academy in relation to the real world (the old phantom of ivory towers and immobilization).

But the debate must be quick to have new laws in September-October. It’s the well-known legislative emergency of the summer or, as one activist put it, “There is less resistance to change and the moment must be seized.”

The Minister and his guests developed an endless number of ideas for the “new normal” of higher education and research. Anyone who listens to the recordings of the campaign sessions can understand the project: to increase the number of foreign students in Portuguese schools; shorten the duration of courses in polytechnics and universities; attract students of different ages or backgrounds to higher education; investing almost exclusively in the areas of the “digitization” of life; withdraw public funding for education and invite patrons and sponsors to take their place and determine what is worth teaching and studying. Patrons will also be able to teach part of the new courses and it is even proposed to allocate school credits to student volunteering activities.

It is also proposed to reduce teaching hours for undergraduate, master’s and doctoral courses from 20% to 35%; replace lessons with viewing recorded video sessions; reduce the supervisory power of the Higher Education Evaluation and Accreditation Agency (A3ES) and the Directorate General of Higher Education (DGES); create cross-border university and polytechnic leagues in order to recruit staff with diffuse employment status. In short, higher education is more streamlined, rushed, inconstant and humble. More “dynamic” and liberalized.

The MCTES invited senior officials from polytechnics and universities to submit their wish lists for legislative changes to deal with the hands-free “new normal”. Rectors and presidents hastened to send their personal lists on behalf of the institutions they represent.

If it materializes, the “new normal” of MCTES will be a reducing transformation of higher education and research into a circle of institutions dedicated to vocational training to meet the momentary manpower needs of companies that are manage to position themselves as “potential employers.” These will be schools that primarily serve to equip their “apprentices” with skills that will instantly transform them into attractive workers. Only these. Specialized vocational training can no longer be a burden for employers Scientific research will tend to be reduced to applied research, mainly of a technological nature, for the development of new commercial products.

This popular idea that vocational training and education can change everything is illusory. Education can do a lot, but it cannot do everything. The economy depends on the capacities of the people, but it depends above all on the model of society, social justice, a fair distribution of income, equality of opportunity and education in the deepest sense, which creates active and critical topics.

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Schools, deprived of the role of financing the state, will be at the mercy of the interests of the companies that orbit them. Interests which will probably not coincide with those of society as a whole and which will probably not have a medium or long term horizon. It is not difficult to foresee what awaits academic and research freedom, or the integral mission of training individuals for this “new normal”. Higher education will no longer be a public good.

The supreme irony is that most of the suggestions MCTES now presents for the “new post-covid normal” can be read in old documents, before the pandemic. Documents that the MCTES itself knew or promoted. Texts such as the OECD dossier on “In-depth analysis of the relevance of higher education and its results for the labor market” (2017) or Ernest & Young – Augusto Mateus SA (2019, 2020) of studies on “human capital to meet trends in business demand”, commissioned by MCTES / DGES, already provided the prescription that the MCTES decrees today.

Haste is the enemy of perfection. But she is a friend of oligarchic decision-making with an air of democracy and debate.

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