Defining the University


A set of principles for the Irish university was recently produced in DCU by a group of academics. A petition has been organised to provide support for these principles. For me, the principles are hopelessly inadequate – far too ideological – but I will leave the reader to judge  for themselves.

But what exactly is the role of a university in modern times?

Many academics tend to approach this issue from an ideological perspective. The DCU group could be classified as ‘left wing’. Others, who see universities solely as the servants of the economy (as opposed to the society and culture) could be loosely described as ‘right wing’. I would describe myself as a pragmatist – hopefully a principled one.

For me, the modern university must retain the traditional values of the university as a place of learning, scholarship and research. In particular the university should be a place of learning where there are high expectations of students and where ‘dumbing down’ is resisted. It should be a place where academics are encouraged, indeed expected to do research that has impact on the cultural, social and economic life of the country and the world. It should also be a place where the consensus is challenged – indeed a place where challenging the consensus (both outside and inside the university) is encouraged – and the university should be a force for economic, social, legal and cultural change.

But, and this is crucial in my view, the university must also be responsive to the needs of the society and the culture. It is not morally tenable in my view to adopt a contrary position. A university must be a place that not only ‘leads’ a society but it must also serve the society. A university cannot see itself as having some sort of preferred status within society. On a practical level, this means that a university must be sensitive to the needs of the college-going generation and must provide education in areas that will provide the best possible opportunities for that generation. This is a not an ‘either-or’ issue because a university can be responsive while still retaining many of the core attributes of the traditional university.

In terms of its operations, the university must be a place where staff are accountable and where the working environment is a fair one. That means ensuring that all staff are playing their part in delivering the various missions of the university. That means, in turn, that there must be some way of evaluating the contribution that each staff member is making. There is absolutely no reason why academics should have a problem with this. Of course, one can argue about the precise methodology used in assessing performance but the basic principle cannot be challenged in my view.

Being largely funded by the taxpayer, the university must provide value to the taxpayer both in delivering high quality education, and, insofar as possible, in helping to tackle the ongoing economic and social challenges faced by the society. In that sense, it is not unreasonable to ask that universities play some part in developing those parts of the economy that are likely to provide citizens with employment. Nothing could be more ‘socialist’ in my view. It is foolish to see this as serving the profit-making needs of companies.

I think the DCU list of principles has emerged for two reasons. First, there remains in academia a cohort of academics who have unrealistic expectations of what the academic job should be and who seem to long for a time when academics were largely unaccountable . The argument for these beliefs are self-serving in my view – “leave us alone to get on with what we do, without interference, and everyone will benefit.” Second, the university sector is badly managed. Many of the managers in universities are what I call ‘reluctant amateurs’ – academics who would really rather be doing something else and who often have little or no aptitude for management. The mix of bad management and highly conservative, if not reactionary, academics is not a good recipe for a positive academic environment.

If academics are unhappy with the direction their university is taking they need to oppose it with credible arguments based on a realistic vision of the university of today. There are all sorts of battles – important battles – that can and must be fought but on the basis of evidence and sound argument, not ideology. 


About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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3 Responses to Defining the University

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Defining the University

  2. cormac says:

    V good post , hard to disagree with the points you make. But for balance, I think you leave out a very important third factor; that, like, so many public institutions nowadays, universities are under attack from a number of directions, from significant shortages of funding, to huge curtailments in staff recruitment, from expectations to continually deliver short-term benefits to lack of coherent planning for the sector at national level

  3. foleyg says:

    Cormac, I agree but the lack of funding has two causes. One, the obvious one of the financial crisis (leading, understandably, to a constant sense of crisis management) and, two, the unrealistic expectations that our society has of the third level sector. I don’t think we can just continue to appeal for more funding in the current climate nor is it necessarily a good idea. In my view, we have to rationalise the sector, reducing the number of students in the process.We have one of the highest third level participation rates – much higher than the Germans, for example, What is sorely lacking in my view is real vision of what the education system should be, in particular what the role of the third level sector should be. At the moment, our education policy could be summarised with Tony Blair’s famous “education, education, education” soundbite. That has a certain populist appeal but I see it as doing a disservice to many young people many of whom are unhappy or out of their depth. I can’t help but thinking that the existing budget could be spent more wisely. The problem is though that we are in an economy where there is no demand for graduates and tradespeople of all kinds and it is very hard to optimise an education system when there are so few opportunities for young people. To be honest, I’m not sure what should be done at the moment and what can be done. I have a feeling we’re just going to have to sit it out, get through the crisis and hopefully that the economy will grow again as the world economy picks up.With greater demand in the economy, the heat might be taken out of the third level sector and we may have the chance to rebuild. Gloomy I know but hard to thing otherwise.

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