No, Joe, universities are not businesses

Now, Joe O’Toole is at it. In his rambling article in today’s Irish Times, he perpetuates the idea that third level institutions are slaves to business, churning out graduates who, while qualified and market-ready, are somehow “uneducated”. According to Joe, “education is plummeting down the priority list, overtaken by business creep”.

Actually, the idea that education is being devalued in the modern ‘neoliberal’ university is totally at odds with the evidence. Twenty years ago, no one spoke about ‘teaching and learning’. In fact, nobody used the word ‘teaching’ in a third level context. Twenty years ago we didn’t have student surveys of teaching, national surveys of student engagement, annual programme reviews, periodic programme reviews, and quality reviews of all kinds.

We didn’t have teaching enhancement units; we didn’t have national forums for the enhancement of teaching and learning; we didn’t have academics pursuing postgraduate qualifications in education and cognitive science. We didn’t have chemists and physicists and many others re-training and forging research careers in the broad area of pedagogy.

In fact, despite what many say, we have become almost obsessed with teaching and learning. The reasons for this are many but for me the two key ones are: (i) there is a huge amount of goodwill in the system and many academics are consistently going the extra mile to improve their teaching to improve the student experience;  (ii) it’s a lot more difficult to reach students these days and we simply have to try harder. Our classes are far more diverse in terms of academic ability (or so it seems to me), the world is far more distracting, and many students seem to be in college because they feel they have to be, not because they want to be. In short, it is a lot harder to engage students these days and while engagement is not a good proxy for learning, it’s a start.

So, the reality is that the modern university is operating under the burden of unrealistic expectations. It is expected to educate in the traditional sense, to be nimble enough to meet the needs of industry and business, to be a place where knowledge is created via basic research, to be a vehicle for job creation, to be an active participant in communities, to be a driver of societal change. This is a lot to ask but the idea that our education brief is being neglected is simply not true.  Mind you, our science and engineering laboratories are crying out for investment.




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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