By Patrick Walsh
Irish universities and the academic blogosphere are currently full of academics reflecting upon their position, as they attempt to generate responses to increasingly restrictive, and frequently ill-thought out new policy directives. Reflection of course comes naturally to the academic –some would even argue it’s what we do best. But the time for reflection is over, now is the time for action. However, by action, I don’t mean the type of direct action witnessed by our striking colleagues in Britain, at least not yet. Instead we need to engage fully within the public debate on the purpose and future of our universities, to try and change, and pardon the cliché, the hearts and minds of our critics, within government and within wider society.
For too long we have allowed stereotypes about university life to go unchallenged in the media and wider discourse. We have allowed ridiculous perceptions about our working hours, (6-10 hours a week, 6 months of the year, if some are to be believed) to go uncontested, leading to a false image of us as glorified teachers, but remarkably lazy ones at that. This feeds into an existing pernicious narrative which has served in the past to demonise the teaching profession. It has also led to confusion in official circles, leading to the absurd idea that the one of the best ways to increase efficiency across the whole education sector, broadly defined, is to increase teaching loads by one hour for everyone from a teacher of junior infants, to a professor of thermo-dynamics, because clearly they are the same thing. Misinformed perceptions of our working hours are but one instance of the popular misunderstanding of Irish academics. Others might include, the common, and sometimes interlinked, belief that we are all grossly overpaid, something not helped by the excessive salaries earned by those at the top. That however is the top, and does not reflect the majority or the experience of those of us at the most junior levels, who often spend years on poorly remunerated short term contracts. Here as elsewhere the reality differs from the perception. Such views are of course exaggerated when they are focused on the Arts and Humanities, where the point of our discipline is frequently called into question. After all, it is claimed, we have no economic function, and in these ‘difficult times’ historians, philosophers and literary critics are unaffordable luxuries.
Such philistinism is allowed go unchallenged, partly because as a group, academics are unwilling or unable to step up and defend their position, to explain our contributions to society, to elucidate the role of the universities. It is no longer assumed, if it ever was, that universities are a good thing. During the boom years it was easier for us to coast along; money and students were plentiful, as indeed were graduate jobs. The latter is of more importance than we might think, at first glance. Students, their parents, as well as policy makers, university administrators and other stakeholders in the university system were happy with our role, or with what they perceived as our role, at least until debates about declining standards and grade inflation began to be aired. These debates were important, and raised an issue that remains an ongoing concern, and one that arguably cannot be addressed fully within the current climate of cuts and searches for ‘efficiencies’. Proper teaching no less than research needs resources and flexibility.
I however digress here from my main point. The academy has failed to tackle these issues head on. Instead we have stood meekly by (apart from some honourable exceptions), as ever more restrictive and unrealistic work practices have been brought in. Research budgets have been slashed, libraries have become increasingly under resourced and understaffed, and hiring of researchers has become increasingly difficult. These are issues which affect how we work and how the universities function. Without any cutting edge research there will be no cutting edge teaching, and then where will the smart economy be? To prevent this happening, we need to demonstrate the value of what we do. Academics need to communicate effectively that we are not just teachers, but also researchers, and good ones at that. We need to demonstrate how our research informs our teaching and how it contributes to wider civil society. In sum we need to explain why universities matter, and what we do in them matters too.
This must start within the universities. Too many students pass through college, without ever understanding what the purpose of the institution is. Explaining this might be one place to start, and here I don’t just mean glib slogans, with their laudable but vague aspirations. Shaping global minds matters, but we need to explain how this shaping happens. One possible approach might be to bring in mandatory multidisciplinary modules, where every new student would be introduced to some of the exciting research being discovered on a daily basis in each university. Such courses might address such major themes as climate change or globalisation, or perhaps more philosophical questions such as what does it mean to be human, taking perspectives, from say medicine, science, philosophy, history and sociology to name but a few disciplines. Such ‘big picture’ courses would serve not just to showcase the varieties of research ongoing in our universities, but also to show how these different elements connect up. Importantly they might also help introduce students to new modes of thinking and therefore help break the cord that still draws them back to their narrow focused Leaving Cert training.
This after all is what university teaching and research is about. It is about the complex processes that make up our lives, and introducing our students to these complexities, whether as scientists, economists, or historians helps us to develop our own research. Students in my experience respond to fresh ideas, even, maybe especially, those that are still only half baked in our minds. Teaching and research therefore go hand in hand. We cannot do one without the other. Only by constantly challenging ourselves in the classroom can we fully formulate new ideas, while only by being consistently exposed to the same new ideas can students realise that there are no easy answers, and that sometimes there are no answers. This of course is a lesson that goes beyond any disciplinary or classroom boundary; it is part of the knowledge society that the university is supposed to shape and define.
Changing student mentalities matters for several reasons, not least because that’s part of our job; if we cannot persuade them of the value of what we are doing, and what they are increasingly paying for, then we are failing. It also matters because their experience affects how other stakeholders see us. The quality of our graduates, not just their degree marks, but the skill-sets they emerge with and the contributions they make to society at large reflect on the institutions that train them. We must also remember here that today’s students are tomorrow’s voters, and policy makers. It is therefore in our interests to ensure they get the best possible education, and understanding of what the university is about.