Students must hear alternative views which they disagree with, new UCD president says

Free speech on college campuses has become a major international issue amid rise of ‘cancel culture’

Prof Orla Feely takes over as UCD president on May 1st. Photograph: Nick Bradshaw

It is vital that students get to hear and debate different points of view which they may vehemently disagree with as part of their university experiences, UCD’s new president Prof Orla Feely has said.

Prof Feely, who takes office as the university’s first woman president on May 1st, made the comments in an interview with The Irish Times amid concern across the higher education sector over “cancel culture” and its impact on free speech on campus.

Free speech on college campuses has become a big international issue. In Ireland, author Mary Kenny said a recent invitation to speak at University of Limerick was “cancelled” after she was accused of transphobia by some students, while Trinity College Dublin last month cancelled a talk by a UK preacher who was the subject of complaints due to “security” concerns.

Prof Feely said, while she was not aware of “cancel culture” at UCD to any significant extent, freedom of speech was a “central underpinning” of democracy.

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“All my instincts are towards academic freedom and also the ability to hear and understand and debate points of view with which you might not agree,” Prof Feely said.

“You might vehemently disagree with them, but the ability to hear them and understand them is a central underpinning of a university education. And a central underpinning ultimately of a mature society and democracy.”

Separately, Prof Feely expressed concern at the low stipends paid to thousands of doctoral researchers in Irish universities.

The standard annual stipend – €18,500 – was cut as a result of austerity-era public spending decisions and has not been increased since, bar a “once-off” €500 increase in this year’s budget.

“We are finding it more and more difficult to attract PhD students of the calibre that we need on the basis of a stipend of that size. So it absolutely needs to be increased,” Prof Feely said.

The danger, she said, is that we no longer have a talent pipeline serving the economy and society which, in turn, could impact on jobs and international investment in Ireland.

“Ultimately, faculty members who are here in Ireland because [they] want to deliver on their research ambitions, if they can’t hire PhD students in Ireland, then they’re not going to stick around Ireland,” Prof Feely said.

“The research system is like a tapestry. You know, you pull out a thread here and things start to unravel all over the place.”

She also said State funding for research was insufficient to deliver on our national ambitions.

“We’re just not spending enough full stop. And all the international comparators tell us that. To be the knowledge economy that we want to be, that we need to be, we need to have greater funding of our research and development capacity nationally,” she said.

She also called for Leaving Certificate results to be released earlier this year to avoid a repeat of problems which late results have caused for students in recent years.

“It places real pressures on us and students,” Prof Feely said. “They come to a campus that is already in full swing.

“They’re arriving into the system later than we would like, their first semester is compressed. They’re into exams at the end of the first semester much more quickly than they would otherwise be.

“So there’s no doubt, that delayed Leaving Cert results are creating problems.”

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent