We shouldn’t take the independence of our universities for granted

Our colleges are exceptional sources of vitality for society and pillars of democracy

It is great that Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris has engineered continued access to the Erasmus programme for university students in Northern Ireland. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

It is great that Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris has engineered continued access to the Erasmus programme for university students in Northern Ireland. Photograph: Dara Mac Dónaill

 

The great Renaissance humanist Erasmus said he longed to be a citizen of the world. I’ve always liked this quote because it sums up so much of the university ideal. Universities have been reaching out into the world for centuries – something that benefits both the institutions themselves and the country as a whole.

I cannot think of any institutions in Ireland that are more connected to the outside world than our universities. Most academics are continuously exchanging ideas with researchers in other countries, and universities make their work available worldwide through teaching and publication. There really is nothing to compare with a university.

Our universities are independent and free of government control. They decide themselves what to spend money on – what to research, areas to develop and what to and how to teach – but we should not take this freedom for granted; it does not exist everywhere and it is not pre-ordained that it should always exist in Ireland either.

In the early days of my own university, Trinity College Dublin, the curriculum was a State-approved theology plus a narrow set of topics that served mainly as markers of status among society’s elite. It has taken time for the independence of our universities to be established. It has led to a flourishing of diversity in teaching and research, making universities exceptional sources of vitality for society and a pillar of our democratic society. Their independence makes universities the first port of call when people outside a country want to know what is going on in it, and universities are often the first port of call when people inside a country need to understand what’s happening elsewhere.

My own university was recently named as the eighth most international university in the world based on our research and the make-up of our teaching staff and student body. Between them, our staff and students probably speak hundreds of languages and communicate with every corner of the globe on an almost daily basis.

Why does this matter? It matters because we are a small island nation that will flourish only by exchanging talent and ideas with the rest of the world. We must remain connected through the global education and research networks.

Seeing universities though a national lens only is a major failure of understanding. Universities are part of networks that increase Ireland’s influence – perhaps bigger countries believe national networks are sufficient but we can have no such illusions. We need to be internationalists if we are to meet future challenges and seize the opportunities presented by new thinking and new technologies. We have to understand the world not from our own standpoint only, but through the languages and cultures of those living far beyond our borders.

Brexit

For a small country such as Ireland, almost every facet of life can be connected to the outside world through universities. The UK’s decision to leave the European Union was regrettable but at least its universities are remaining as part of EU research networks. In the Brexit negotiations the UK team pushed hard to stay in those networks as it recognised their value.

In return for a contribution to the EU budget, the UK will join the new Horizon Europe research programme which will spend €85 billion over the next seven years. The efforts the UK made to remain involved in research networks speaks volumes about their importance.

One area where UK citizens will lose out is the Erasmus programme, which allows EU students to study abroad for a year. In 2019 a record 4,448 students and staff from the Irish higher education sector undertook study visits, traineeships in European businesses, teaching and training visits in the EU. A total of 60,000 Irish students have travelled abroad on Erasmus+ since its foundation in 1987, while 100,000 students have travelled here to learn at Irish institutions. I feel proud that Irishman Peter Sutherland was centrally involved in creating Erasmus but I feel immensely sorry for British students who have been excluded from it by Brexit and grateful that Irish universities remain networked. Great too that Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris engineered continued access to the Erasmus programme for universities in Northern Ireland.

Erasmus is only one aspect of these academic networks that are so vital to our country. Universities are also introducing joint degrees. In Trinity we now allow students to study with us and Colombia University in New York for a joint degree awarded by both institutions. More joint degrees are coming with European universities such as Barcelona, Budapest, Montpellier and Utrecht under a European universities alliance we’re in called Charm-EU. DCU has a similar European universities alliance. These alliances will enable students to obtain degrees by combining studies in several EU countries and will create a new type of citizen at home in several countries and institutions.

These dense networks can last for decades and sometimes centuries. They are networks that can change lives and have a long-term impact for the better on society.

In Trinity we are proposing to create a new research institute called E3RI that is looking for solutions to the world’s mounting problems through new thinking along six dimensions: environment, production, resources, data, wellbeing and communities. A multidisciplinary research institute that aims to find balanced solutions for a better world cannot be created by one university alone, nor one country. Its success will rely on the quality of our academic global networks and our ability to leverage those networks for research and ultimately for the benefit of society as a whole. In life, your success is prescribed by your networks. The same is true for universities and for countries.

Patrick Prendergast is the provost of Trinity College Dublin and a chartered engineer