One key change in the way in which we view higher education has been thrown into relief by the funding crisis in most western countries. As resources have dried up, university representatives (including me) have warned that poorly resourced institutions cannot compete globally and will not be recognised as being at the cutting edge of scholarship and innovation. Interestingly, over recent months there has been a tendency on the part of some politicians and business leaders to respond by saying that world class excellence may be incompatible with an inclusive approach to teaching and may be inappropriate at this time. This in turn has been driven by the policy of widening access to higher education and increasing the levels of participation; and it is assumed that to do this requires more flexible entry standards and a willingness not to be ‘distracted’ by a research agenda.
This was first brought home to me at a meeting I had about three years ago with local government representatives and voluntary organisations from Dublin City University’s neighbourhood, when I was the university’s president. I had arranged the meeting in order to consult local stakeholders about the DCU’s strategic plan, and in order to ascertain what they felt they needed from us. To my surprise the most passionate contributions came from those who were arguing (at a time when DCU had just entered the global top 300 university rankings) that we had lost our way and had diluted our support for the community by pursuing a high value research agenda. We were, they suggested, a ‘teaching institution’ and there was no need to ‘run after all those research deals that won’t make any difference to anyone here.’
My fear is that this particular outlook is gaining ground in Ireland, sometimes pushed by people whose main agenda is to justify cutting funds for universities. It is of course true that not every university can pursue research in exactly the same way. DCU’s research agenda, while (I would argue) highly successful, was certainly not the same as that of Harvard. But the idea that high value scholarship is a luxury that we should leave to other countries would, if it gained ground, damage not just Ireland as a location for innovation, but also the interests of those whose representatives I was addressing three years ago. The next generation of young people in Ireland will need to graduate with skills and with knowledge that is typical of the world’s leading universities. Industries that a decade or two ago recruited employees with undergraduate degrees will today often look for those who have done postgraduate programmes or research.
There will still be a need for diversity, and for institutions with different missions. But there will be no demand for lower standards and cheaper education. Indeed, while there is no conflict between social inclusion and educational excellence (provided universities that consider themselves to be the elite are pushed to remember their social obligations), there is a particular need to fund social inclusion programmes well, so that their students can be properly supported and their graduates can take their places in the new careers and businesses of the future. The idea that there is a pleasing convergence between budgetary restraint and progressive social policy is an idiocy that needs to be corrected at every opportunity.