The Promise of the University: Reclaiming, Humanity, Humility and Hope.

Afterword to Dr Áine Mahon’s book ‘The Promise of the University: Reclaiming, Humanity, Humility and Hope’.


This book was originally motivated by a series of pressing challenges in the global context of Higher Education. I had in mind most obviously the ever-escalating financial pressures on university students as well as their teachers. In the context of a highly competitive post-crash global economy, the former were placed under increasing pressure to distinguish themselves from their peers via a portfolio of learning excellence and extracurricular achievement. Worsening economic variables necessitated growing numbers to undertake part or full-time employment in order to cover registration fees as well as the basic costs of living. Their increased anxiety and stress was self-reported in peer-reviewed scholarship as well as public discourse and indicated a student mental health crisis that was all-pervasive in Higher Education (O’Brien 2019; Shackle 2019; Farrell and Mahon 2021).

Threats to the happiness and wellbeing of university staff were just as acute and operated across the life-course of an academic career – from early-career anxieties re precarity and casualisation to the worries of more privileged and permanent faculty who feared they did not meet ever-changing rubrics of ‘student satisfaction’, ‘core university values’, ‘teaching excellence’ or ‘research impact’ (Weale 2019). In all of these contexts, institutional objectives re bureaucratization, credentialization, and workplace surveillance coalesced with wider market forces of profit, productivity, efficiency, and speed. These interlinked agendas constituted the very structures and assumptions of the university itself and, in my view, demanded consideration from philosophers of education in Ireland, Europe, and further afield.

Having finalized the proposal for this volume in early 2020, the individual chapters were all written in late 2020 and early 2021 – as the global university system was irrevocably altered in light of the Covid-19 pandemic. A rapid turn to home-based and isolated working environments combined with the attempted provision of online teaching and supervision to radically reformulate both the student and the academic experience. It is interesting to consider that all of these chapters were written by atomized and pressurized scholars, working from their home offices or kitchen tables. All of them were struggling under the twin pressures of global catastrophe and personal upheaval, with many facing personal or familial ill health and a substantial increase in domestic and caring responsibilities. From my own perspective, a full teaching, research, and administration load merged with a sudden pivot to online learning as well as enforced distance from family and full-time care of a rambunctious toddler. I am very aware that my team of contributors faced at least similar challenges if not more.

As I touched upon briefly in the introduction to this volume, the Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated already existing inequalities within the university sector. Academics across Ireland and the UK have reported deepening work-related stress, digital exhaustion, and – particularly for women and minority groups – disastrous impacts on their ability to pursue research as well as their work-life balance more generally (Shankar, Phelan, Suri, Watermeyer, Knight, and Crick 2021). On an institutional level, universities have been placed under unprecedented financial strain arising from the uncertainties of such a global health emergency. Coronavirus decimated among many other things any potential revenue from international student fees or the privatisation of campus services. In the context of Higher Education in Ireland, to take at least one representative case, President Michael D. Higgins has called for government to come to universities’ financial aid with ‘a model of public education that is democratic if we are in any way serious about the concept of third-level education and scholarship’ (Higgins 2021).

For Higgins, the Covid-19 pandemic presents a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. This is a crucial moment in which we might ‘reclaim and re-energise academia for the pursuit of real knowledge […] and the enrichment of society in its widest, in its most all-encompassing definition’ (Higgins 2021). On this particular reading, the pandemic presents unparalleled opportunity not only for innovative models of public education but for novel understandings of the civic university. The combined forces of democratic society and higher education might come together to address multiple manifestations of discrimination and inequality.

It is interesting to note that other scholars of education have been far less aspirational. Indeed, contra Higgins, Richard Hall (Professor of Education and Technology at De Montfort University in the UK), feels compelled to foreground the hopelessness of the post-pandemic university and to face up to its reality as ‘anxiety machine’. On this understanding, the virus has not so much destroyed the humanity of academic work but exposed how this labour has always been individualized and atomized. There is little space here for lofty rhetoric re revitalised possibilities for public or civic education. Rather, in Hall’s own words, the virus has underscored the ‘claustrophobic nature’ of our practices ‘and how our lives as-they-were forced us to centre our labour rather than ourselves. Any demands that we deny our griefs and carry on simply scrubs away at the fabric of our souls’ (Hall 2020, p. 658).

Whether we are hopeful like Higgins, or hopeless like Hall, we can be sure that post-pandemic the idea of the university will never be the same. It remains to be seen what permanent changes the university will instigate in its struggle to recover, revive, and learn lessons from such an unprecedented public health emergency. Certainly, it stands to reimagine the role any state-sponsored educational institution must play in providing a place of purpose, identity, and belonging for its students as well as its staff. More online teaching and learning will assuredly not be the answer, in spite of calls from certain quarters that practical issues of accessibility and widening participation must trump educational goods of in-person dialogue and human encounter.

And yet, even acknowledging these radical upheavals and reformulations, the primary challenges facing the university in 2022 and beyond will remain largely the same as they did in 2019. And in our response to these challenges we, as scholars and students, must step very carefully indeed. We must embody a very careful balancing act: one where we remember the romantic ideals and promises of the university (as ‘a gift of the interval’ to rehearse Oakeshott, ‘a time out of time’ to cite Forstenzer, or ‘a space for the imagination to go visiting’, to paraphrase Arendt [Nixon 2018, p.88]) and still acknowledge the very real and pressing challenges faced by our staff and students.

Here we must bear in mind the de-motivated and financially straitened undergraduate as well as the continually precarious early-career researcher. At the very least we must work to ensure that within the more privileged university cohorts, certain vices (competitiveness, narcissism, aggressiveness, and hypocrisy) might be curbed and certain virtues (curiosity, kindness, respect, and restraint) might be encouraged. In this careful cultivation of virtue before vice, the university might become a place for edification rather than corruption; and to remember the insights of Richard Smith, the visionary rhetoric of an Oakeshott or a Newman might be spared its decline into a ‘devotional language’ (Smith, this volume).

For Smith, the high-flying expression of Oakeshott or Newman reveals less an effort to ‘convey something real’ and more a refusal to question received pieties ‘except by those prepared to reveal themselves as barbarians outside the charmed circle’ (Smith, this volume). For me, as editor, it is important that this current project be received as one of realism rather than rhetoric. It is important also that this book might speak to those beyond the very specific conjunction of Philosophy and Higher Education Studies. Indeed, it is my hope that The Promise of the University can make a small but significant contribution to broader theorizations and understandings of the university. The volume is intended to speak to scholars working in philosophy and education but also to those based in literary studies, in gender studies, in political theory, in sociology, in organisational psychology, and in mental health.

I have sought to involve local but also broader European and global perspectives and to highlight research from established as well as emerging scholars (and so the collection includes the work of academics based in Ireland, England, Scotland, Sweden, Denmark, the US, Australia, and Japan). I have been concerned also to redress the absence of female voices in this scholarly space, given the historic under-representation of women in philosophy. Finally, I have welcomed in particular papers written in a collaborative and self-consciously experimental mode and have given priority to contributions from scholars at the early career stage. I hope that the resulting collection will be of interest to a broad audience of scholars and students, and to all of those concerned with the university’s ongoing project of self-definition.


Farrell, E. and Á. Mahon. (2021). ‘Understanding Student Mental Health: Difficulty, Deflection, and Darkness’. Ethics and Education 16:1 (36-50).

Hall, T. (2020). ‘Covid-19 and the Hopeless University at the End of the End of History’, Postdigital Science and Education 2 (657-664).

Higgins, Michael D. (2021). ‘On Academic Freedom’: Address at the Scholars at Risk Ireland/All European Academies Conference. 8 June 2021. Available online at the President of Ireland Media Library.

Nixon, J. (2018). ‘Hannah Arendt: Embodying a Promise in the University’, in R. Barnett and A. Fulford (eds.), Philosophers on the University: Reconsidering Higher Education (Dordrecht: Springer), 83-94.

O’Brien, C. (2019). ‘Mental Health: Record numbers of third-level students seek help’. The Irish Times. Jun 17, 2019.

Shackle, S. (2019). ‘“The way universities are run is making us ill”: Inside the Student Mental Health Crisis’. The Guardian. 27 Sep 2019.

Shankar, K., Phelan, D., Suri, V.R., Watermeyer, R., Knight, C., and Crick, T. (2021). ‘“The COVID-19 crisis is not the core problem’: experiences, challenges, and concerns of Irish academia during the pandemic’, Irish Educational Studies.

Weale, S. (2019). ‘Higher education staff suffer “epidemic” of poor mental health’. The Guardian. 23 May 2019.

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