Silliness in Irish universities?

My goodness, a symposium organised by the Royal Irish Academy recently on the standing of academics in the public sphere seems to have turned into a right old whinge-fest. A report on the event and the contributions made was carried in the Irish Times, and as far as I can tell every one of them used the occasion to moan about how little they were listened to by the general public, the politicians and the great and the good. And I wouldn’t mind, except that virtually all of those mentioned are hardly ever out of the media and are constantly quoted; they included UCD professors Declan Kiberd and Tom Garvin, TCD economist Brian Lucey, QUB’s Liam O’Dowd, ESRI chief Frances Ruane, and NUI Galway’s Donncha O’Connell.

And what sort of things were said? That Irish intellectuals were ‘despised, ignored and denigrated’; that modern universities were run (badly, I think was the implication) in such a way that there was a major growth of ‘silliness’; that academics were ‘failed by the politicians’; that there was an ‘an absence of a strong tradition of media engagement by academics in Ireland over the past 20 years’; that universities were becoming the R&D wing of the state; and more in a similar vein.

Where does all this come from? A quick glance at the opinion pages of Irish newspapers tells you very quickly that they are disproportionately given over to the analysis and recommendations of Irish academics, usually from Ireland but occasionally from the Irish academic diaspora. These contributions cover all shades of academic opinion, but probably with a majority coming from the particular perspectives that were prominent at this symposium. Academics make regular appearances before Oireachtas committees. They are frequently talking to camera during news and current affairs programmes on television. They chair or sit on lots of public committees. Actually, I know of no country where academic opinions are as prominently visible as in Ireland. For heaven’s sake, even I have a newspaper column. Not to mention blogs.

All of this is of course a good thing, and it is right that academic opinions should be heard in relation to matters on which they are expert. It does not necessarily mean that their recommendations must always be followed, but they should get some space. And they do. In spades.

So why all this complaining? What brought on all this hyperventilating? I suspect it is to do with the current state of anxiety about the future of the academy and the ability of universities to maintain a status of autonomy, in a disinterested relationship with key stakeholders. And those fears and anxieties have some substance and need to be addressed, while at the same time we need to look again at how and whether universities should adapt to a changing environment and different external expectations. But they will receive more thoughtful attention if we don’t distort the picture of how academic opinions are received at this time. I doubt, frankly, whether the report of this meeting will do much to advance the cause of the academic community.

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14 Comments on “Silliness in Irish universities?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    But is this not a variation of the farmers ‘poor mouth’. You know that kind of ‘woe is ours,Oh Woe. Things have been bad. Bring back the Corn Laws’. Basically, the Tory Party.
    Well, as you know what normally happened was that the farmers were heard. Nowadays, ’tis the Universities that are seen in the natural position of the farmers. And quite honestly I do not understand why you do not have a Weekly out there to nail your flags to the masts, a la the Farmers Journal. What you need is the wheel in constant need of oil. You could even have a knotting section rather than a Knitting section. A driving section, giving tips to the rushed ‘kademic avec 2.457 sprogs, in how to use side mirrors for the rear window is packed to the dog fence with scripts. You could even have photos with impressive machines, the really expensive ones. And there is the ever the timeless shot of the old machine, and people shaking the head it that pose, ‘did we really ever use such crap, and think it gold’.
    And I still think that way to much cash is removed from the Arts to feed dubious tradesmen.

    • I suppose, Vincent, we could try the academic equivalent of the farmers bringing their tractors in to Dublin to clog up Kildare Street. Maybe wheel in some of those machines you mention… 🙂

  2. Iainmacl Says:

    It is somewhat incredible. Compared to all other countries I have lived and worked in, Ireland gives a much higher profile to academic opinion – at the individual level at any rate- in the media. Questions & Answers, when it ran, had academics on it practically every week. (Indeed, perhaps it was the demise of this programme and their regular slot that this particular group were bemoaning). The major newspapers have regular opinion pieces, the government appoints academics to run many of its reviews. It might be that the academics selected aren’t quite representative of the prevailing political inclinations within academe, but that’s another matter.

    Having said that there is still value in discussing the role of the ‘public intellectual’ and higher education in civil society and it would be interesting to read the papers presented rather than just the media reports.

  3. Jilly Says:

    I’d echo Iainmcl’s final comment: given how incoherent the Irish Times article about this event was, I’m not prepared to draw any conclusions about what was actually said, and how much nuance was obliterated in the reporting of it.

  4. kevin denny Says:

    It really is hard to tell from the report since each academic gets one sound-bite. It sounded like they were complaining about different things.

    I think one should usefully distinguish between anti-intellectual and anti-academic. I don’t think we are unusually anti-intellectual but there is probably less interaction between policy makers and academics in some areas. It is also worth remembering that just because you are on the telly or have an article in the paper doesn’t mean you are influential: it is easy to delude yourself into feeling you are important.

    The crew who are most prominent are economists, particularly these days. I suspect many people think that economists are really important people now. I can assure you we are not, certainly compared to any country that I know of. So while economists may be all over the media like a rash our actual influence on policy is slight. I like to think that’s why we are in such a mess but that’s another days work.

    As for other countries, I think France is one that certainly treasures its intellectuals. You only have to see their reaction in France when one of their great minds dies: its a big deal, in Paris anyway.

    • Kevin, I agree that public intellectuals are in the limelight in France. However, I’m not at all sure they have any greater influence on public policy than ours have. I couldn’t think of a single political initiative in France that was prompted by academic comment.

  5. Brian Lucey Says:

    As the above say, the reportage and the content of what was said are as almost always at some significant divergence.
    We spoke for 15-20m , then there was rapporteur, then a 30-40 m q&a. The RIA are intending I understand to ask us to expand our comments for a book.

    • Brian, it is of course great to hear from you directly. Was the newspaper item therefore inaccurate at least in terms of what it was reporting? In other words, did the people quoted say what was attributed to them? Was there a different perspective on the same issues in what was not reported?

  6. […] University Blog « Silliness in Irish universities? […]

  7. Sandeep Says:


    Nice post. I’ve commented on it here:

    The report conflates all sorts of unrelated things – engagement, impact, management of universities. The quotes imply that Irish academics have adequate opportunities to make their views known, but their grouse (largely) seems to be that their opinions are not translated into action by the government. I’m not sure that there is anything terribly wrong with that. Why should unelected academics have more influence than the average Joe?

    • Thanks, Sandeep. I agree with the point you make – that academics cannot insist on the implementation of their recommendations. But even at that level the record is quite good – just look at McCarthy…

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