Why ‘The University’ is not a useful concept

I wrote last week about how the modern university has developed in recent years. The purpose of that post was to try to bring some sense of reality to  ongoing discussions about the ‘The University’. I’ll be honest and say that I think much of the discourse in this area is too abstract and much of that discourse is dominated by people who I would suggest are quite far from the centre in terms of their thinking on economic, social and political issues. Furthermore, I have not read many suggestions as to how the supposed crisis in the university system might be alleviated – other than suggesting that Government back off while simultaneously giving us lots more money. That simply won’t happen unless you are planning some sort of revolution.

The abstraction of the discourse becomes a big problem when you begin to discuss what the purpose of ‘The University’ is, especially the function of teaching and research. For example, the Defend the University charter says that “The aim of teaching is the dissemination of knowledge and the fostering of creativity, and is not just about increasing human capital.” The problem with this statement is that it ignores the fact that many programs within ‘The University’ have a large training component – and they always have. From medicine to engineering to law to accounting to teaching to actuarial maths to dietetics, even to languages, the purpose of the program is to achieve a lot more than the dissemination of knowledge. It is also about ensuring that students develop skills and abilities that are often demanded by outside agencies. An engineering degree is worth very little unless accredited by the relevant professional body.

The reality is that ‘The University’ must do many things at the same time and to discuss it in the abstract is really very difficult – and not very fruitful. I think there is a big science-humanities divide here. Much of the humanities could be seen as education for education’s sake and that’s fine although the fact that in 2012 only 29% of graduates in Arts and Humanities obtained employment in Ireland is, or should be, a concern. (Mind you, the figures for science and mathematics are similar at 36%, which is rather ironic considering the constant clamour for more graduates in science and maths. Maybe they all have to do PhDs first?)

Those teaching in the Arts and Humanities tend to have a more ‘purist’ view of education because that is the nature of what they do. But in many other areas – engineering being an example – there is a much stronger utilitarian aspect to the education of the student. Therefore, if we want to discuss ‘The University’ we need to do so in the knowledge that it involves lots of different kinds of education. In other words, defining what the aim of teaching is – as done in the Defend the University charter – is actually a pretty tough task. It’s not something that can be achieved in a sentence or two.

The same sorts of arguments can be made in the context of research. The same charter says that “The main aim of research is to create new knowledge.” (It also throws in some stuff about the profit margins of corporations but I’m ignoring that.) Again that’s simplistic and is certainly not consistent with the thinking of many academics who have all sorts of motivations for doing research. Some want to cure diseases; some might want to solve important technological problems. Many do not see new knowledge as having some sort of intrinsic value; they want to be able to do something with that knowledge. There is a real problem, in my view, in that arguments that are presented in defense of the intrinsic value of knowledge always deal in generalities and not the specifics of the research being defended. A kind of slippery-slope defense is employed. Thus, we get arguments about ‘knowledge’ rather than arguments about ‘my research in medieval Hungarian poetry’ or ‘my research on the terminal settling velocity of carrot chunks’. Rather than defending the value of the specific research, the academic will defend the concept of the quest for knowledge, often making the argument that one never knows where knowledge will lead. But it’s really a handy way of avoiding the question: “does my own particular research have any value other than the fact that I like to do it and a very small number of people are interested in it?

So defining the purpose of ‘The University’ is no easy task. The fact is that it has lots of purposes. I would agree that enterprise-related research does receive a lot of coverage but so does health-related research and research in the broad field of sociology. Many areas receive far less attention from universities’ publicity machines but that’s true of the world in general. Somewhere it is decided, often in the media, that there is  hierarchy of importance when it comes to research and those of us whose research is down the list just have to accept that.

My wish for 2014 is that when people discuss education, they recognise that education has many functions and when discussing it we need to deal in specifics and not stay safely in the abstract.

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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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One Response to Why ‘The University’ is not a useful concept

  1. An intelligent post! Want to visit/follow my blog? http://kennethfetterman.wordpress.com
    Interested in Educational Reform/Teacher Training? Specifics? My Books are published @ http://www.smashwords.com/profile/view/kennethfetterman

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