I had occasion to visit two universities over the last two weeks or so. The first I am going to leave nameless, but I went there to listen to a public lecture. The event was at 6 pm, and the speaker was very good indeed, and I was pleased to have gone. But the audience for this was very small. There were perhaps 15 people in all, and as far as I could tell, none of them were students; indeed I’m not sure there were many staff either. Outside the venue the campus was eerily quiet; everyone had gone home.
Then last Friday I was a panelist at a student-organised event in Trinity College Dublin – the Trinity Economic Forum. The discussion in which I participated was about higher education policy, and the packed lecture theatre must have contained about 200 people. It was at 6.45 pm on a Friday night. Not only were the students there in number, they also participated actively.
The university experience is of course changing all the time. New demographic trends and new technology – to name just two factors – are making a difference to how students interact with the university, with their teachers and with each other. But I still believe that the experience of active engagement, both with people and with topics, as part of the learning process but outside its timetabled elements is a vital element of higher education. It is something we lose at our peril. We must all embrace change, but we must hold on to the goal of student engagement in whatever educational experience we aim for in the future.