Taking the debate out of the university

It has been a theme of this blog that the narrative of higher education has been lost, and that as a result the nature and purpose of the university is not well understood in society. This in turn has led to a major drop in support for higher education across government, business and the wider public. Universities however have not been particularly good at re-focusing this debate and restoring a sense of trust.

Not everyone is passive, however. I have been really interested in an initiative that has been taken by the Vice-Chancellor of de Montfort University in Leicester, Professor Dominic Shellard. Yesterday he and the local Church of England bishop were at the centre of a series of debates about the university as a ‘public good’, conducted in various sessions and widely disseminated. One of the more intriguing parts of this was a fairly well organised platform for some of the debate on Twitter. Those who were interested could follow the debate as it evolved via the Twitter ‘hashtag’ #DMUdebate and could address questions or comments to the participants. The journal Times Higher Education added to this by re-tweeting some of the contributions, thereby involving its wider group of readers.

It is difficult to say what impact this event will have had, but at the very least it was a very noticeable one, and a genuine attempt to take higher education’s case to a wider public. Dominic Shellard is, in fact, an interesting university head, with communication skills and a willingness to speak and listen. His initiative should be applauded. Other attempts, in other places, to engage society on behalf of the academy should follow.

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20 Comments on “Taking the debate out of the university”

  1. Fred Says:

    Ferdinand what worries me is that while interesting, most of the discussions and debates about the university, its future and its role as a public good are starting from new universities VCs. I hope that this my own mis-understanding but the absence of comments from the other side is quite worrying.
    Apart from that, we as academics may have acted in the past in a way that distance our unis from the society…

  2. anna notaro Says:

    *It has been a theme of this blog that the narrative of higher education has been lost*
    Pleased to see the word ‘narrative’ used in this context since it does not happen often, as I argued with reference to a previous post what we need right now is academic leaders, (Russell Group university included)who are able to articulate and disseminate a coherent *narrative* of what is the role of university in the 21st century, it is apparent that the ancient art of storytelling has become ever more ‘digital’, it is thus appropriate that universities enter the debate in this manner!

  3. Anna Notaro Says:

    right man for the job then, not too ‘presidential’ though🙂

  4. Ernie Ball Says:

    A latter-day university manager lamenting that the “nature and purpose of the university is not well understood” is a little like the parricide begging for the clemency of the court because he’s an orphan.


    • Ernie, you were probably quite pleased with yourself when you put that little put down together – but what do you actually mean here?

      • Ernie Ball Says:

        Why is the child an orphan? Why is the nature and purpose of the university no longer well understood?

        What I mean is: it’s a little much to lament that the nature and purpose of the university is not well understood when, for as long as I’ve been reading this blog, one of the consistent themes has been that the nature and purpose of the university (as traditionally very well understood both within and without the university) is now hopelessly outdated and in need of “bold,” “new” “rethinking” in order to meet the (mostly economic, I gather) demands of governments and the media. Those in your former position, the new manager(ialist)s, put forward this view in order to cast themselves in the utterly inappropriate roles of “bold reformers” and all of their opponents as stuffy old atavistic Luddites seeking nothing more than to get their abacuses re-lubed.

        But it’s not just you. This insistence that the traditional concept of the university is outmoded is what has legitimated the promulgation of arrant bullshit like “Vice Presidents for Innovation” (six-figure bonuses à l’appui) and “Innovation Academies” and all sorts of other gag-inducing bushwa. Is it any wonder the public doesn’t know what a university is for when university presidents start talking about a “third pillar” (innovation! of course!) of university activity alongside those of research and teaching and accompany that administrative brain fart with all sorts of empty promises about the tens of thousands of jobs such an approach will create? That the people making these bold proclamations are, if anything, the sort of managers whose thinking would not have been out of place running 1950s sweatshops is but the icing on the cake.


        • Ernie, where your argument falls down is your assertion that a traditional view of the university was ‘well understood both within and without the university.’ I don’t think that’s the case at all. It also depends wholly on where you are when making this statement.

          The ‘traditional’ Irish university model was, in its essence, teaching-only (with some research pockets), with few resources and facilities funded on a shoestring. In the eyes of the general population, universities were academies for the social elite.

          \Nobody (I imagine) would want to subscribe to that now, but if we want something better that has general support in the population, we had better be able to articulate what that is.

          Just as a matter of interest, when have I ever said that we must meet the demands of government and the media? We cannot be indifferent to expectations from outside the academy, unless we want to claim that we are entitled to escape all accountability, uniquely in society. But much of what I have written in this blog is about rejecting the views of government.

          Caricatures only work is they are based on a grain of truth.

          • Ernie Ball Says:

            Oh, I’d say there’s more than a grain of truth to it. . .

            You know, every time anyone at a Faculty meeting (oops, there I go not adopting the Brave New Nomenclature), er, I mean a College meeting ever said anything critical about Hugh Brady’s plans for the university, he’d trot out the same tired old red herring: “not to change wasn’t an option.” If that’s supposed to be the argument, it’s worth pointing out that it justifies the worst sorts of retrograde steps as well as the most progressive. But the real question is (always): is this change what we should be doing? And the fact is that the changes that university administrations have promulgated here in Ireland have been ill-chosen, intent as they have been on imitating third-rate institutions elsewhere who are themselves imitating businesses.

            Nobody was against change. But there is a difference between changes that respect what “the nature and purpose of a university” is and those that attempt to change that very nature and purpose, between improvements to the university and the destruction of the university (while still carrying on under the old name). To spell it out: the change that has been carried out is one that transforms the university from a social good essential to a democratic society, committed to the pursuit of truth and basic research, whatever the practical consequences to a vision of the “university” just another business, delivering “services” to “customers” and focused entirely on the short term economic gain. The difference is between a university, however large, as remaining what a “university” has always meant (a community of scholars) and a “university” in which academic staff are now the “employees” of “management. In the former, the purpose of the university is to facilitate teaching and research and management exists solely toward this end. In the latter, it’s not clear what the purpose is, since more and more frequently it seems like the academics are there to serve management. It is in this context that the public is now confused about the “nature and purpose of the university” and the people who brought this about are the managerialists with their antediluvian management structures and misplaced projects.


          • With all due respect, Ernie, you levelled some specific charges at me, and what happens at UCD College meetings is not my responsibility. There is actually a whole world outside of UCD.

            Secondly, whether specific changes made or proposed in this or that university were wise or unwise, good or bad is something that can be debated. But nobody has ever suggested that academics are the servants of management, not even in UCD. Nor has anyone disagreed with the idea of the community of scholars. But even such a community needs to persuade the wider society that it is doing something worthwhile. There is in some statements, not excluding yours, a sort of plaintive claim that asking questions of us in the academy about what we are doing is of itself corrupt. But in fact no group in society can nowadays get away with a claim to be allowed to be unaccountable. You may not mean it that way, but it can come across thus.

            I have no doubt that as a university president I got some things wrong: we all try to do what we can and we learn along the way. But we have all had to fight hard to ensure that higher education does not simply get wiped off the board by a society that doesn’t know what it’s for because it thinks it’s just an extension of secondary schools. A response from us along the lines of ‘leave us alone, we’re doing something noble’ doesn’t work; and to be honest, it shouldn’t work for us any more than it should work for the banks.

            We have a very good story to tell, but we must learn to tell it, and to drop the truculent tone when we’re doing it. The taxpayer doesn’t care one bit whether you like the renaming of Faculties to Colleges. But they might listen to the fears we have about the abandonment of the pursuit of knowledge in an unbiased way.

  5. Al Says:

    There has been a commodification of education in recent years, just listen to the radio to the advertisements! It isnt just Universities etc, I tremble at some of the manliness proclaimed by some of these accountancy qualifications advertised on the radio. I hope I never meet one!

    Seriously though, with this commodification has come a layer of management that seeks to maximise the return from the investment. Part of this effort affects the representation of the university, a more corporate understanding of academic enterprise.
    Your obversations about the PR coming out being bland and non contentious are true but this is run of the mill for corporate type.
    To have proper academic debate would destabilise the whole managerial enterprise and question the validity of the whole commodification entreprise.
    Presumably Management wish a stable environment in which to grow, or do whatever they wish, and Socrates coming along questioning the whole thing isnt welcome…


    • Al, you wrote: “To have proper academic debate would destabilise the whole managerial enterprise and question the validity of the whole commodification enterprise.”

      I honestly cannot see what evidence you would have for this. For example, in DCU I organised and took part in several debates about this, including a public head-to-head with someone of very different views from mine. I took part in debates in student societies in three universities and addressed these issues in debates with academics of very different viewpoints. And I was not unique – John Hegarty appeared at two of the events I was at. It is therefore really nonsense to suggest university ‘managements’ don’t like debate.

      My quibble is that we don’t take this debate more effectively to an external audience, which needs to hear this much more.

  6. Al Says:

    Allow me to develop this a little further, and post in the full width page.

    I dont see this as some form of educational blasphemy, as others, above, might. It is a natural tension between management and academics, present in other relationships between talent and those that seek to manage it.

    I presume academic debate to mean a debate that can go anywhere.

    Ireland has placed much of its assets on the bet/investment that education will be the economic generator for the country.

    In doing this, we feel comfortable making claims about smart economy, world class education system, innovation economy, etc etc.

    Of course there is debate here, but at what level?

    For example, should University Heads standing down prior to retirement age get a pension or similar payment in these harsh times?

    Maybe I didnt make my point well, but if the debate was on terms that endangered this national investment in education, then would there be resistance?

    Rambling this evening… long day

  7. Al Says:

    Sorry, forgot to respond to this:

    “My quibble is that we don’t take this debate more effectively to an external audience, which needs to hear this much more.”

    Such a debate would require structure and depth and I dont think we live in an age that makes this easy.
    An interesting project it would be…

  8. Perry Share Says:

    There is a yawning gap in Irish public discourse when it comes to tertiary education. The CEOs/Presidents/Provosts &c, with one or two notable exceptions, have made precious little attempt to generate discussion at a level that extends beyond the reorganisation of their own institutions. The likes of Ed Walsh, in the past, whatever you might have thought of his views, at least had a strong set of opinions and a significant public profile. It would be an uber-nerd these days who could list the CEOs of the seven universities in the Republic! (Try it at a pub quiz near you!)

    On the other hand we have not had a Minister for Education in my memory who has expressed a coherent, passionate, intelligent viewpoint in relation to third level education, over an above the most basic stuff about the sm**t econ**y &c. Has Mary Hanafin been celebrated in recent coverage for her imaginative approach to third level education? I think not.

    In between we have a ‘serious’ media which, in either broadcast or print channels, has precious little understanding of contemporary third level education at a global or national level, and is more interested in intra-institutional conflict; bat-sex; the impact of the ‘points race’ on the little darlings of D4; and assaulting the working conditions of educational workers/academics.

    I don’t think that academics themselves are – currently – a very promising source of debate about the necessary renewal of tertiary education either. The unions/professional associations (TUI/IFUT) are almost silent on any of the real pedagogical or intellectual issues – restricting themselves very narrowly to pay and conditions (fair enough, that’s what we pay them for). Disciplinary bodies (including my own) do not trouble themselves with the messy business of teaching or management. Really, in my view, it is only on a few blogs, such as this one, that there is any informed or constructive debate at all – and almost be definition their audience is a restricted one.

    Not a very positive state of affairs!


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