When I worked in Trinity College Dublin, every time a member of the Irish government took an interest in a higher education issue, we tended to remind ourselves where he or she went to university. If they were graduates, the chances were that it was of University College Dublin (or more rarely, Cork or Galway). Almost never TCD, which until relatively recently had been ‘banned’ by the Roman Catholic Church. So we often wondered whether the ministers would be tempted to give special support to their alma mater – which was almost never us.
During the last ten years in DCU it was, in some ways, the same thing. As a very new university we had no graduates in government. But then again it was not the same, because we were active in areas that were close to the politicians’ hearts, and I have to say we received some strong political backing across all parties. I never felt we were disadvantaged. But I remember a local councillor once saying that we should not in any case want all the politicians to be graduates, because if they were, how could they truly represent all those disadvantaged constituents without degrees. A fair point?
Now, the US journal Chronicle of Higher Education has analysed the higher education background (or in some cases, lack of one) of America’s state and national legislators. They have found that state legislators have varied backgrounds that, while not precisely reflecting those of their constituents, at least are not fundamentally different; most are graduates, but some are not, and the degrees they may have are awarded by an interesting variety of institutions. Federal legislators – members of Congress and Senators – on the other hand are overwhelmingly likely to be graduates of leading universities or have higher degrees.
It’s a tricky issue. Politics at the highest level is not an amateur pursuit, or should not be. We really should not be saying that what we offer as educators is not important enough for us to want our politicians to have it. But then again, we should not want our politicians to see themselves as members of en elite. So how should we, as higher education institutions, present ourselves in this matter?
I think we should want our politicians to be educated, to the greatest possible degree. But I think we should ensure that our universities and colleges are places for the people, all of them, even those that won’t proceed to a degree there. We should be places that welcome all members of the community, and we should have both events and facilities that are there for them. We should provide access to those wanting to use sports facilities, or catering facilities, or occasional lectures, workshops and courses. We should want to welcome the very young and the very old. If we do that, then our association with national decision-makers will seem right.