What are universities for?

So asked Diarmaid Ferriter recently in the Irish Times.  It’s easy to dismiss a question like this as being too vague or too ‘philosophical’, the sort of ivory tower question that academics are prone to ask without ever providing any answers.

But, in fact, this question goes to the heart of the entire debate around third level education.

Back in the 1980s when I was in UCD, universities existed largely to educate undergraduate students. Students went to lectures, labs and tutorials and the word ‘teaching’ was never used. Research was done, of course, but not to the same extent as it is now. In my own discipline – engineering – research was driven by a small number of pioneers, seeking out niche areas where they could compete despite their shoestring budgets. In chemical engineering, a deliberate decision was made to focus on drying technology!

But a lot more is expected of universities these days. Now we are supposed to be hotbeds of innovation, places where new businesses and jobs are created, or where services are provided directly to business. Indeed our role is increasingly seen as providing job-ready graduates with market-relevant skills. The language of education is dominated by talk of creativity, ‘real-world problem-solving’, collaboration and leadership. Words like ‘knowledge’ or  ‘wisdom’ have become somewhat quaint. Words like ‘maturity’ have been replaced with buzzwords like ’emotional intelligence’. Part of this process of making education ‘relevant’ is to suggest that all our students, regardless of their discipline, spend time learning ‘on the job’ as part of work placements and internships. And someone has to manage all of this.

Research has become ‘big’ in every sense. The idea of the lone academic pursing his or her own research interests is largely gone, at least in the sciences and engineering. The arts and humanities have undoubtedly been marginalised. Collaboration is the name of the game now and to do research you need to be part of a centre of excellence, often working out of a purpose-built building with its own support staff, at least for as long as the funding lasts.

At the same time, universities need to be seen to be relevant. Impact is the thing. So we have offices of engagement, outreach and international affairs.  Busloads of school kids regularly descend on our campuses, taking part in science festivals, hackathons, ‘maker’ days and coding schools.

And, at a time when everyone is more conscious (and rightly so) about all matters related to equality and equity, we have access programmes, collaborations with FE colleges and enhanced student support services.

As we have moved to a third-level-for-all model, universities have found themselves in a marketplace competing for students. So we need recruitment offices and offices of communications and marketing. We send delegations to China and India in search of fee-paying students. And we build attractive facilities as the quality of the student ‘experience’ becomes part of our marketing strategy. Growing our numbers is seen as an end in itself.

Within the universities themselves, greater emphasis on quality control has spawned a host of mechanisms and offices devoted to academic regulation and quality promotion. And  this needs to be managed with people and IT systems of varying cost and quality.

And while all of this was happening there has been a philosophical drift towards student-centred learning. Now, lecturing is perceived as being fundamentally flawed and ineffective, notes are provided online, continuous assessment has become almost mandatory, increasingly rapid feedback is expected if not demanded, while the undoubted flaws in our second level system has meant that universities have to engage in additional remedial teaching, especially in mathematics.

Against this kind of background, Diarmaid Ferriter’s question seems like a good one.

Whether or not you agree with the undeniable shift that has occurred, one where universities have moved from being places of education to places of pretty much anything you can think of, you have to recognise that this shift must have been expensive. Everything incurs a cost.

And when universities are borrowing hundreds of millions of euros to stay ‘competitive’ or even to provide a reasonable quality education to its students, you do have to ask fundamental questions about what we are doing.

The consensus is that the third level sector as currently structured is unaffordable and the only solution is to ask the current generation of students to pay for it by incurring long-term debt. As Brian Mulligan noted in the Irish Times recently, albeit from a slightly different perspective, who is asking about the cost of third level education? And since the cost is inextricably linked with the perceived purpose of higher education, we need more people in authority to ask the Diarmaid Ferriter question.

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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 What are universities for?

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » What are universities for?

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