Demonstrating the value of higher education
One of the most disagreeable experiences during my time as President of Dublin City University was attending a debate in Dáil Eireann (Irish Parliament) on higher education, about ten years ago now. The topic of the debate was higher education, and more particularly whether universities were receiving adequate funding. One after another, TDs (members of the Parliament) got up and read from (or more usually recited from memory) letters they said they had received from members of the public complaining of waste and malpractice in the institutions.
But there was also another theme running through the contributions: that universities were receiving huge sums of public money, and that this lavish expenditure was not producing any impact. The country had huge economic and social needs but the universities – so the claim went – were not making much of a contribution to their resolution.
As I have noted previously and elsewhere, it is of vital importance that universities seek and maintain the confidence of wider stakeholder groups; not doing so endangers our sustainability. But on this occasion what was going through my mind was how little the country’s legislators understood the benefits society derived from universities; not just in terms of the wider education provided, but in the discoveries and innovation coming out of higher education institutions that powered the economy and secured social progress. If we are really measuring impact, it is huge.
Virtually all universities can demonstrate a dramatic impact. The scale of this is demonstrated by the ‘impact case studies’ that have been published in the aftermath of the UK’s Research Excellence Framework. My own university, for example, is shown to have provided benefits to society in areas such as artists working in the public sphere, good practice in the treatment of asylum seekers, mental health needs of people affected by disasters or major incidents, obesity management, data-driven decision-making, energy and the environment, and so forth. Other examples are shown in respect of pretty much every UK university.
Ten years ago I wanted to stand up and tell the parliamentarians that they could make few better and more impact-driven investments of public money than in higher education. That is still very much true ten years on.
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