Is our traditional university model outdated?

Is this a description of today’s university you would recognise? – ‘The production line factory of education, in which ever greater numbers are taught by excessively traditional methods, by people who do not think themselves to be accountable to anyone, with little interdisciplinary interaction and few opportunities for independent thinking.’ No? Well, I’m afraid we might have a problem, because this was how universities were described by a senior businessman at a recent reception I attended, to the general agreement of most of those within earshot.

Nor is this just the kind of comment made by someone hostile to higher education for whatever reason. It’s not a million miles off comments that have been made from within universities, as in this article in the New York Times by Columbia University theology professor, Mark Taylor.

As I have noted repeatedly in this blog, the academic profession has been pushed against the wall by totally inadequate funding and an avalanche of policy pronouncements that often seem to owe nothing to proper analysis. However, in this state of stress we are not adequately addressing questions of university reform. Taylor’s argument in a nutshell is that the traditional university structure can no longer deliver what society needs from universities, and that our working methods have not adapted to an environment that has changed beyond recognition.

These are topics that will be addressed in the forthcoming conference in DCU – details will be posted here shortly. And this is a debate that is now urgently needed.

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7 Comments on “Is our traditional university model outdated?”

  1. iainmacl Says:

    Then again, I suppose one could ask whether there actually might be real value in having an institution that is different to the rest of the economy/society and provides scope for thinking differently other than just being part of the commercial treadmill…?

    And of course one could also ask whether the traditional model of business, based on the greed motive is well suited to societal needs in the 20th century or whether it too, in the light of recent events, needs to be rethought.

    ? 😉

    • Jilly Says:

      Completely agree. I would also question why the onus to explain how universities actually operate (again. and again. and once more with feeling) always falls on us, despite the fact that, as this example shows, some of those who feel very free to comment and judge are clearly not paying attention nor do they feel remotely constrained by the evidence: which in this specific instance is that we are highly accountable and highly interdisciplinary.

      I’m sure that FvP’s good manners prevented him from giving the deserved response to the businessman quoted above, which was that he should try to refrain from commenting on issues which he clearly has not bothered to find out about.

    • Iain, I guess the economic model is under intense scrutiny, and some who will be reflecting will be doing it from inside… 🙂

      I’m not sure, to be frank, whether our inherited university model is up to what we expect of it any more. Yes, the criticisms we face constantly are often wholly bizarre and uncontaminated by any evidence. But that doesn’t mean all is fine, because clearly it isn’t. We are using a design which was never intended to accommodate such numbers on the back of such insufficient resources. It is not well equipped to deal with the demands being made of it. I think we need to address this in an open manner.

      What the guy was saying was nonsense, I agree.

  2. I’ve a huge problem with pronouncements like Prof. Taylor’s, because they display a lack of nuance. The ‘problems’ within universities are many, and many-faceted, and won’t be solved by retooling the system to produce ‘creative thinkers’ any more than closing them down and handing out degrees by lottery, or anything in between. Yes, educational reform is important, but it’s also important to get a baseline estimation of where we are right now, and then decide whether changes are better than remaining as is, and what the costs of those changes imply, and what a successful change might look like. Anything else is either bluster, or too bald a statement to have any real bite. Look forward to that conference announcement.

  3. Conor Galvin Says:

    It might be worth keeping in mind here that the power of anecdote from those mis-remembered counties has always been at least as important in policy formation terms as argument and evidence from the academic perspective. And often far more so.

    I’d agree we need a serious debate on the future university. But I remain to be convinced that most of the pundits and what-you-shoulds from the corporate world have anything to contribute except a perspective that seeks to advantages themselves in terms of workforce orientation and cultures of compliance.

    Looking forward to the conference announcement…

  4. The Irish third level sector does need to make a some very radical transformations, but it isn’t necessary to get rid of the current system entirely.

    I reckon that not enough use is being made of Computer Based Testing. Many professional education programs use CBT extensively.

    I also reckon that a comprehensive program of one- or two- week block courses should become the norm.
    (London School of Economics have a summer school program –

  5. I’ve a huge problem with pronouncements like Dr Kinsella’s because they display nuance and subtlety in the face of a problem which is the equivalent of a high speed train coming down the tracks. There are major opportunities for completely changing the way third level learning works, both to improve it, and to address the serious problems with the cost model that has developed. We know roughly where we are. We don’t really know or have any vision where the system is going, but for sure we should be trying to figure that out. (Taylor, to be fair, has put something real and practical forward, whether you agree with it or not.) There is really no option to stay the same, no matter what a cost-benefit analysis might tell you.

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