Returning universities to a less complex age?

The following extract from a speech delivered by Ireland’s President, Michael D. Higgins, to the annual congress of the Union of Students in Ireland caught my eye:

‘What kind of a scholastic institution or community of learning is it when you hire a very important person who can bring investment to a university but doesn’t want to teach the main body of undergraduate students?’

There are all sorts of things wrapped up in the President’s question. First, there is an assumption that generating income for a university is not particularly significant. Secondly, there is at least by implication the suggestion that research detracts from a university’s teaching mission. Thirdly, there is a criticism of staff who do not teach, and assumption that there are many of these.

The President’s picture of contemporary Irish universities does not in reality stand up to much scrutiny. Researchers play a vital role in the life of a university. They develop scholarship and knowledge, and sustain a creative and innovative society. Mostly they do teach, often enthusiastically. The quality and standing of Irish universities has improved dramatically since they embarked upon a high value research agenda, from the late 1990s onwards. Students have also significantly benefited from this.

Of course it is good that President Higgins is stimulating debate and questioning value systems. But it would be better if this did not involve a caricature of the country’s universities, or a misunderstanding of what they do and of the contribution they make. The President is suggesting that there may have been a better, purer age of higher education. In truth there are a good many things that could be done better, and there are some developments over recent years that could usefully be questioned. High value research is not one of them.

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11 Comments on “Returning universities to a less complex age?”

  1. Steve Button Says:

    Whether your President did assume, suggest or indeed imply what you indicate is open to question but his statement regarding non teaching staff is true to some extent in Irish third level education.

    You cannot expect an individual suddenly elected to be President of a Country to be instantaneously endowed with universal knowledge on every topic.

    Obama won a Noble prize before he actually did anything. He also can’t give a speech without reading from notes.
    They are figureheads only with varying degrees of actual power and what they say should be listened to but taken with a pinch of salt.

    I am personally aware of an IT in Ireland where both the Head of Department and Head of School have NEVER taught to students at any level at any time in their entire careers.

    They are therefore ignorant about key issues affecting staff they are supposed to be managing and hence poor decision making is the end result.

    You cannot have a situation where the disconnect between the management function and the coal face issues of teaching to a large body of students is so stark. How can you expect teaching staff to have any respect, trust and/or confidence in such individuals?

  2. Niall Says:

    “Of course it is good that President Higgins is stimulating debate and questioning value systems. But it would be better if this did not involve a caricature of the country’s universities, or a misunderstanding of what they do and of the contribution they make. ”
    This is not a misunderstanding. There are certainly highly paid research professors in Irish universities do teach no undergraduates, and would not lower themselves to do so. Almost exclusively, they are paid directly by the state. Teaching even a single course per semester is not arduous, and is entirely consistent with high value research

    Furthermore, the do not “generate revenue”. Rather they compete for state or EU supported grants.

    Therefore, I conclude that it is the author, and not the President, that exhibits misundertsanding.


    • Thank you, Niall, but I don’t think you are right, unless things have changed dramatically over the past year since I left Ireland. I actually did some analysis of this a couple of years ago, and found that senior research PIs overwhelmingly did teach, though the volume of their teaching varied (with some teaching extensively). Full-time researchers tended to be more junior, at post-doc level and beyond. In addition, the PIs were mentoring significant numbers of PhD students.

      No doubt there were (and are) some exceptions, but the pattern was not as you suggest.

  3. Al Says:

    Ferdinand,
    Can you confirm or deny that you will be running for the Aras in 6 years time?
    Tis early campaigning, American style!

  4. cormac Says:

    Well done on your research Ferdinand. facts and figures are always useful. I’m not surprised you found most senior research figures do teach – it certainly reflects my own experience with eminent figures in my own field.
    Could it be that President Higgins is not talking about researchers?I’m not sure who he means, really

  5. anna notaro Says:

    Regardless of the various implications you see wrapped up in the President’s question – some more likely than others – it is undeniable that many universities particularly in light of forthcoming resesearch assessment hire ‘important persons’ who are reluctant to teach undergraduate modules…staff who teach such modules AND are active researchers as well understandably feel shortchanged…

  6. Vince Says:

    Would you say it’s better to have him in the vice-regal lodge than the usual anti-intellectual. If so, would it not be better to read to the forgiving side than the critical.
    I read the statement not as you, but where he spoke about universities being run by businessmen imported in.


    • Actually, I do like Michael D. Higgins, and know him to be a civilised and cultured individual. I am just slightly put off by his rather doctrinaire attack on markets since he took office. Maybe that’s because it’s a topic I am working on right now.

      • Vince Says:

        I think the point I’m trying to make is this. Of all the academics you know I expect you have a hard time finding a safer pair of hands where the the Academy is concerned.
        Right at this moment you’ve got what any other sector would kill the fatted calf. A really sympathetic personality that has the ear of the populous.

  7. Don Says:

    Just two points:
    1. Research conducted in universities often IS teaching. Because, most research grants accommodate post-graduate students who are studying for a masters or doctorate. These students are, de facto, being taught many skills: experimental (of course), time management, project construction, health and safety, logic, rhetoric, etc, etc. Teaching is not just confined to undergraduates, so let’s be clear WHO is being taught, and by WHOM.
    2. I knew a PI who came to Ireland with a huge research grant, was offered and accepted a full professorship (and head of department), and a totally refurbed lab, and on his arrival promptly announced to his fellow academics and other staff that he ‘was hired to do research’ and wanted nothing WHATSOEVER to do with undergraduates or running the department, and he got away with it.

  8. James Fryar Says:

    There’s a few issues I would raise.

    Firstly, there is a public and certainly government-led strategy which goes something like this – ‘we want our universities to conduct research in areas that will have a positive short-term economic impact on our nation’. Once you start down this path you then set up ‘research institutes’ and ‘national centres’ which are viewed as separate entities to the schools and faculties to started off with. You develop centres for spin-off companies, you pump huge amounts of money into the system, you set goals and deliverables for that funding, and you expect the researchers to form partnerships with industry and drive forward.

    What we have effectively done is privatise much of the research in our universities – we can’t magically roll back the clock and ask why it is that we have researchers who don’t lecture. We divorced the two with the funding schemes we introduced, and the requirements we demanded of our universities.

    Secondly, I’m not terribly worried about older academics not teaching. I’m more worried that we’ve now created a system in which large groups of academics effectively study the same thing. If everyone researchs nanotechnology in a physics department, because thats what the national centre studies in your institution AND because that’s where the funding is, who teaches the next generation of physicists something other than nanotech?


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