Returning universities to a less complex age?
The following extract from a speech delivered by Ireland’s President, Michael D. Higgins, to the annual congress of the Union of Students in Ireland caught my eye:
‘What kind of a scholastic institution or community of learning is it when you hire a very important person who can bring investment to a university but doesn’t want to teach the main body of undergraduate students?’
There are all sorts of things wrapped up in the President’s question. First, there is an assumption that generating income for a university is not particularly significant. Secondly, there is at least by implication the suggestion that research detracts from a university’s teaching mission. Thirdly, there is a criticism of staff who do not teach, and assumption that there are many of these.
The President’s picture of contemporary Irish universities does not in reality stand up to much scrutiny. Researchers play a vital role in the life of a university. They develop scholarship and knowledge, and sustain a creative and innovative society. Mostly they do teach, often enthusiastically. The quality and standing of Irish universities has improved dramatically since they embarked upon a high value research agenda, from the late 1990s onwards. Students have also significantly benefited from this.
Of course it is good that President Higgins is stimulating debate and questioning value systems. But it would be better if this did not involve a caricature of the country’s universities, or a misunderstanding of what they do and of the contribution they make. The President is suggesting that there may have been a better, purer age of higher education. In truth there are a good many things that could be done better, and there are some developments over recent years that could usefully be questioned. High value research is not one of them.