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Universities are under increasing pressure to produce graduates solely for the labour market and face an “intellectual crisis” over their role in society, President Michael D Higgins has said.

Speaking at the annual conference of the European Universities Association in NUI Galway, Mr Higgins said higher education has a crucial role to play in laying the foundations of a society that is more inclusive, participatory and equal.

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“We must first recognise that we live at a time when the language and rhetoric of the speculative market has become embedded in the educational culture and has brought some university practices down a precarious road,” Mr Higgins said.

“That reductive view has brought us, I believe, to a time of great questioning about the purpose of the university – much of which has been corrosive – and perhaps even to a moment of intellectual crisis.” The President said there was a challenge too for universities to recover the “moral purpose of original thought and emancipatory scholarship”.

In crafting a response to the European crisis, he said higher education must insist on remaining open to originality in theory and research and committed to humanistic values in teaching.

“It is through the encouragement of creative and free thinking that our universities acquired their status in the past, and correctly claim it today as unique institutions that accept the responsibility of enabling and empowering citizens to participate fully and effectively at all levels of society,” he said.

“This creative function must be cherished, nurtured and encouraged.” The President said the role of the university in enabling citizens to develop the tools to address the great challenges of our time – such as global poverty, climate change and sustainability – was vital.

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