Graham Butler lives in Denmark where he is researching the legal dimension of the EU’s common foreign and security policy. The 27-year-old was recently appointed assistant professor of law at Aarhus University.
Why did you leave Ireland?
I moved from Dublin to Copenhagen to commence a PhD in EU law at the University of Copenhagen in 2013. I was in a job I loved and enjoyed, working for a TD in Leinster House. Yet, I had been anticipating eventually continuing research in law, which turned from being a notional interest into a passion. The right opportunity to research my field of EU law and its external relations, more specifically, the legal dimension of the EU’s common foreign and security policy arose, and I jumped at the chance.
What does your job involve now?
I have recently been appointed assistant professor of law at Aarhus University. Like most academic appointments, it is multifaceted, with a combination of research, lecturing and administrative responsibilities. On a daily basis, I try to write a few hundred words on the subject field in which I am currently researching, in combination with reading some of the latest publications in the field. On a weekly basis, during term, I lecture on two courses to students doing our bachelor and master’s degrees, which involves a lot of preparation, and ultimately, grading, monitoring students developments in the course of their studies. In the midst of these research and lecturing responsibilities, there is the overall running of the day-to-day matters of university life, to which faculty staff contribute actively.
Do you think you would have had the same opportunities if you had stayed in Ireland?
My research in EU law is applicable to Ireland as a long-standing EU member state, but opportunities in this line of research can be found all over Europe. At the University of Copenhagen, where I did my PhD, they had an excellent research and collaboration environment, including my academic supervisor, professor Helle Krunke, who enabled me to research in the field that I wished to pursue. At Aarhus University, I am in a position to continue my research in EU law. It holds many fields of research that continually need new exploration and understanding, including my specialisation of EU external relations law, which I am continuously pursuing.
Frankly, the arrangements for undertaking research in EU law are better in Denmark than in Ireland. Without mentioning names, Irish people are some of the best top-quality researchers in EU law. However, their research is usually not produced in Ireland, nor at Irish universities, but elsewhere, in universities in other EU member states that have provided them the right environment in which to shine. Given Irish universities’ situation for many years, it is hardly surprising that a majority of Irish researchers working in EU law are working outside of Ireland. This is unfortunate, but the working environment and conditions offered elsewhere to pursue such interests eclipse anything arising in Ireland.
How does teaching in Scandinavia compare to Ireland, or other locations?
One of the great secrets of academia that most people are not aware of is that researchers, be they professors, associate professors, assistant professors, or otherwise, prefer to conduct research, than to lecture or teach. In the university world, lecturing and teaching are not truly valued in the same way that research is; which is a phenomenon that stretches across disciplinary boundaries and academic environments.
Most scholars, in my experience, prefer to toil away on their own research than spend hours preparing, teaching and delivering lectures. The reasons for this are numerous, but one primary reason is that researchers are judged and evaluated by their peers on the quality of their published research. Higher education structures afford very little weight to a researcher’s lecturing or administrative capabilities. A researcher’s trade is their research, their publications, and so forth, which correspondingly entails them preferring to dedicate their precious time to this endeavour.
What is life like for you in Denmark?
I live in Copenhagen, a city I have called home for nearly three and a half years. Being involved in research is a busy business. It is sometimes said that the meaning of academic freedom is deciding which 100 hours a week you want to work. Being in academia is no nine-to-five profession, but like professional sports, in which you have to strive and continue to be active in your field in order to succeed.
Any free time is usually spent socialising with the circle of friends I have acquired here, and travelling around Europe, normally in the company of my girlfriend Katarina, and a good book. Living just beside a Metro station in Copenhagen makes the everyday things remarkably easy, as our apartment is just three stops from the city centre, and all the usual shops are within walking distance. In the other direction on the Metro line, the airport is just fifteen minutes away, making getaways for work and leisure easy. The thought of such similar convenience I enjoy here in Copenhagen being made available to Dubliners anytime soon is just fanciful.
What are your plans for the future?
The time of year is January, which usually means the research and writing you promised yourself you could do over the Christmas and New Year break, but did not do, still awaits you. For the coming spring semester, I will be presenting some of my latest research at three different conferences in Edinburgh, Rome and Nicosia, and lecturing two university courses; one to bachelor’s students, and another to master’s students. In the summer time, the plan is take some time revising the 300-odd page manuscript of my forthcoming book on the law of the EU’s external relations, followed by the autumn semester of more lecturing, and organising a large international conference on legal disintegration in Europe.
Do you think Irish lecturers or academics like yourself would move back to Ireland? What would have to change? Or what incentives would have to be provided?
The issues within higher education in Ireland have been highlighted extensively in The Irish Times and elsewhere. Unfortunately, the debate is often belittled down to student fees, and the overall university funding arrangements that are in place. Regrettably, the problems go much deeper than that. Structural issues and the place in society that universities hold has to be called into question.
For alleviating the issues within Irish higher education, too many reports have been commissioned, committee and expert groups been formed, and soundings on potential reform been made. To date, this has ultimately lead to incremental reforms being done in Ireland, despite the problems being diagnosed repeatedly.
From your experience working abroad, what suggestions would you have for the Irish education system?
Where to start? There is nothing worse than wasted talent. That applies to both students and academics. As such, one particular reform could be implemented without much controversy.
I would like to see more researchers in Irish universities being given more time to dedicate to research, rather than other tasks which are habitually placed upon them. Danish researchers, comparatively speaking, in legal education, allow a greater proportion of time for research to be conducted, making it an attractive place to continue researching to an international standard. Irish universities have some fantastic researchers, but they could be regularly overburdened with other tasks that are withholding their attention, that may prevent some from reaching their potential.
When a talented researcher in a particular scientific field is doing mundane tasks such as filling out forms and other administrative tasks, it has to be asked if that is the best use of their time. There is no reason that researchers at Irish universities cannot reach for the stars, achieving their ultimate potential, if the academic environment in which they cultivated their research was accommodating to their needs. Cutting back on some of the lecturing hours and administrative work, and opening up more time for academic research for at Irish universities would be a good start. With small innovations such as this, more research emanating from Ireland would be able to flourish worldwide.