Posted tagged ‘engineering’

Is there a STEM crisis in these islands?

February 26, 2014

Quacquarelli Symonds have published the QS world university subject rankings. One particular aspect of these tables has been noted in both the UK and Ireland: that while universities in these islands do well in the arts and humanities and social sciences, they significantly under-perform in science, engineering and mathematics. This must raise serious questions about the capacity of our countries to remain innovation hubs in the next wave of economic development. It raises questions about resourcing and funding, as well as questions about career planning and guidance in the education sector.

It is an urgent task for policy-makers, funders and for universities themselves to look at how our record for achievement in science, engineering and mathematics can be secured for the future. It is of course also true that excellence in the arts, humanities and social sciences is needed, but the portfolio of excellence must be balanced across the whole range of academic disciplines.

Science and the humanities: an eternal battle?

March 29, 2010

Over recent years the debates on higher education funding have addressed not just whether that funding is sufficient, but also increasingly how it should be distributed. In this context the growing volume of science funding, often linked to economic development priorities, has sometimes raised the issue of whether science and engineering have got a better deal than the humanities, the arts and the social sciences. Sometimes this debate addresses issues of how the humanities can also stimulate the economy, and sometimes it has more generally raised the question of whether we are neglecting disciplines that have major pedagogical benefits and which moreover provide important social and cultural supports.

This issue was recently discussed in the Guardian newspaper by the columnist Simon Jenkins. He argues that an attack on the humanities, arts and social sciences set in under Margaret Thatcher, who considered these areas to be socialist breeding grounds, and that since then politicians have maintained a bias towards science funding, with Peter Mandelson in the UK completing this process. Jenkins argues that the universities need to re-assert their autonomy and their support for all disciplines on a fair basis.

It is hard to know what to do with this debate. Clearly universities, at least as a sector, need to maintain a balance between the disciplines, though this may still allow some individual universities to specialise. However, it is not helpful to suggest that there is some sort of academic class war between disciplines; in fact one of the more helpful recent developments has been the growth of interdisciplinary dialogue between the humanities and the sciences and the growth of joint projects between them in both teaching and research. It is also unavoidable that scientists will, in overall money terms, gain more funding than the humanities because their infrastructure and equipment is much more expensive. Nor is it entirely unreasonable to fund research that will secure major economic growth andf benefits.

However, it is also vital the universities develop a clear policy for the development of their disciplines, and that such a policy should leave no doubt about the equal value of the arts, humanities and social sciences, and their claim to be recognised as vital academic areas. It is in nobody’s interests that there should be hostility between different parts of the academy. To avoid this requires a better dialogue and more transparent decision-making.

University subjects and disciplines

March 18, 2009

It was reported earlier this week in the Irish Independent that, as part of the higher education rationalisation that is expected, the major casualties would be engineering and the arts, particularly minority interest languages (Italian was mentioned). I do not actually believe that we are anywhere close to taking decisions quite of that nature (though we shall indeed address rationalisation), but in our discusions we shall need to be very careful about what image of Ireland we are presenting both to the wider world and to ourselves.

There seems little doubt to me that the major growth of civil and construction engineering of recent years cannot be sustained, and will not continue anyway as a result of student choice. But engineering as a whole must not be portrayed as an area of the past – it remains critical to Ireland’s future and our economic recovery. As for the arts, we must avoid the impression that they cannot be supported in the same way during difficult economic times; the contribution they make to a balanced education system and to a stable society is vital.

As I have mentioned before, we must pursue a rationalisation agenda, and we must do so urgently. But we must also do so intelligently, remembering that today’s conditions, difficult as they are, will not last for ever, and we need to be equipped to deal with the world as it then emerges.

That is not to say that we should not be pursuing an agenda of radical change; but more of that in a coming post.