If you’re passing our laws, do we want you to be educated?

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.

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11 Comments on “If you’re passing our laws, do we want you to be educated?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Ah now, in fairness, Trinity was not all that keen in being awash with Roman Catholics either. Actually I should say Natives. They rather liked being the bit of ground forever England in the corner of a foreign field. It gave them an odd purity in Oxfordshire and Berkshire that was enunciated by Sir John Betjeman. While at the same time giving about as much of the exotic as the average can handle in those warm counties. Nor was there a ban as such, but it would have been as well to ask ones Bishop for direction if you ever wanted to make a living from any under his control.
    By the way it was your very newness that caused your level of access at DCU. There was no historic factions to defend and you could be an easy compromise.

  2. In the context of Glasgow University closing its Continuing Education programme this is an important message from the leadership of RGU.

    It’s worth watching Munir Fasheh, the noted Palestinian academic who was at Harvard for a long time, on youTube (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3r0Vw9oTwu4). He makes a number of very important points about academic imperialism and the importance of keeping the University grounded and open.

    He does also go on to question why with so many political leaders educated at the ‘best’ Universities the problems we face are getting more difficult (climate change, resource scarcity, conflict, etc).

  3. anna notaro Says:

    *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. *
    I am not sure I understand the logic of this sentence, if universities, as they should, become more embedded in the community how does that affect their association with national politicians? To me the main issue is that politicians should be fully representative of the whole society, in terms of class, gender and race. Certainly ‘open door’ universities have a role to play in the cultural upbringing, so to say, of the politicians of the future regardless of whether they make it to a honors degree…

  4. no-name Says:

    Bertie Ahern (a former Irish Prime Minister) seemed to think that the people wanted him to be educated. Remember his “confusion” over his cv (see below)? Of course, nobody really seemed to mind in the end that he couldn’t remember which courses he took, where he took them or, indeed, if he took them at all…


    “…Even the man who holds the top job in the country has had his difficulties over inconsistencies in his CV. While there is no suggestion that the Taoiseach deliberately lied or misled the public about his qualifications, in November 2001 the Fianna Fail website listed Bertie Ahern’s third-level education as: “Rathmines College of Commerce, University College Dublin and London School of Economics.”

    That same month the Taoiseach was quoted in a new book, My Best Advice, as saying: “I obtained my accountancy qualification (in the College of Commerce, Rathmines) and later completed further diploma courses through the London School of Economics in taxation and business administration.”

    Sharp-eyed observers noted that the Taoiseach failed to make any mention in the book of his time at UCD. When a spokesman for Mr Ahern was asked to explain the omission, he said: “He has never claimed to hold degrees from UCD or anywhere else. I don’t know what he got (after Rathmines College). He remembers doing the courses, but not what they were.”

    Attempts by reporters to trace Mr Ahern’s attendance record at UCD or the London School of Economics proved unsuccessful. The reference on the Fianna Fail website to his studies at the LSE was subsequently deleted.”

  5. jfryar Says:

    So let’s have a quota for male and female politicians. Oh, and one for socio-economic backgrounds. Let’s have one for sexual orientation. And another for race. One for religion. One for college dropouts and one for PhDs. And let’s have one for smokers and nonsmokers, and try desperately to have a political landscape that is truely representative of the population.

    Nonsense. Politicians are people. They were people before they were politicians. Should we encourage politicians to study at college? Yes, education is never bad. Does a working class lad from three generations of chronic unemployment who subsequently gets a degree in engineering suddenly render themselves incapable of representing a ‘working class community’ having done that degree? Of course not.

    What we seem to have is a never ending cycle of the ‘feckin’ students’ mentality in Ireland – a type of reverse-snobbism that suggests because someone went to collge, that now means they can’t possibly relate to anyone other than middle-classes.

    • anna notaro Says:

      jfryar, you might trivialize the ‘society representation’ argument by mentioning quotas (which I happen to support especially as far as women representation in various working contexts is concerned), still the concept of political representation of all sectors of society is at the cornerstone of the modern idea of democracy and I for one still like to believe in that ideal..

      • jfryar Says:

        Anna, I don’t think I’m trivializing anything. I’m merely against any notion of democracy that suggests you can only be properly represented by people who are carbon copies of yourself.

  6. Roger Mullin Says:

    Another refreshing and insightful blog. In severe danger of becoming a must read.

    I agree wholeheartedly about this wider role of universities, and particularly engagement with the community and nation. But a pity your eloquent voice in these matters is often not matched by others in the sector.

  7. cormac Says:

    I think it comes down to an old question; do we want our politicans to be leaders or do we want them to be representative of the population? In the US congress, there is a frightening rejection of much well-established science, from the theory of evolution to climate science. The senators’ views are, in many ways, representative of the population. Yet they take – or block – decisions that will affect every citizen in the US, and eventually the world. We do not expect politicans to be experts on such subjects, but that they be reasonably capable of discerning who to listen to..

    There is a great line in the film ‘Gladiator’ when a poplist senator sneers ‘Are you trying to be of trying to be one of the people now?.’ at his older collegaue, spotted at the Games. ‘No, but I like to think I’m for the people’, the wise Senator replies.

  8. Al Says:

    Does one make an assumption that educated means degree, masters, doctorate, etc in thinking about this?
    Take Alexander Hamilton for example?

  9. anna notaro Says:

    This is an interesting example of a course which captivates a student audience well beyond the packed lecture room http://www.justiceharvard.org/
    and http://www.nytimes.com/2011/06/15/opinion/15friedman.html?_r=2&hp

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