The intrinsic value of our universities must be preserved
A dynamic and well-funded third-level education system is a vital part of our society
UCD has 50 companies on campus as well as researchers investigating deep and seemingly abstract questions, motivated by the desire to discover new knowledge. Photograph: Frank Miller
There is more going on in our universities than you might think. Today’s academics are teachers, mentors, scholars, researchers, innovators, entrepreneurs and advisers. Contrary to the common misconception, their work does not end when the undergraduate students are off for the summer. Nor does the academic working week equate with time spent in lecture halls.
The persistence of these misconceptions shows how poorly we have managed to communicate the multifaceted reality of today’s higher education and the research activity that underpins it.
Research is demanding and highly competitive. To succeed, academic researchers must come up with a stream of unique and compelling ideas, compete for funding to implement them and recruit and manage a top-class team. Together, they deliver the research, publish the findings and work with partners to ensure that this knowledge reaches people and products.
In tandem with all this, they apply their expertise to the education of undergraduate and postgraduate students. The passion and insight that a successful academic researcher brings to the classroom are priceless, stimulating a whole new generation of inquiring minds.
This combination of research and higher education has long been a characteristic of the most successful regions of innovation and is being pursued by other countries seeking similar success.
The higher education environment brings a particular dynamism and agility to research, enriched as it is by the continuous throughput of creative minds.
The benefits of the research are seen not only in new ideas or technology, but in the PhD students and postdoctoral researchers trained through the research. Undergraduates are educated to adapt with confidence to a changing environment, to challenge and to create, guided by faculty members who exercise those same skills in their research programmes. The expertise, ideas and talented individuals that emerge from this system are essential drivers of a dynamic knowledge economy and an inquiring society.
UCD, for example, houses 50 companies on campus, ranging from start-ups to global leaders, all interacting with our researchers. Also on our campus are researchers investigating deep and seemingly abstract questions, motivated by the desire to discover new knowledge.
These two aspects of our research are not in opposition to one another, they are entirely complementary. Our ability to deliver real and lasting value to society, to industry and in particular to our students is rooted in a chain of rigour and excellence that extends seamlessly from fundamentals to applications.
A research system too heavily focused on immediate applications loses, over time, the ability to deliver value. At the other extreme, a system that is indifferent to applications will lose vitality and support. In either case, research, innovation and education are impoverished.
Instead, we need a virtuous cycle of inspiration and application, with both illuminating education. This is exemplified most notably in the powerhouse US research universities. When it works, it works wonders.
The problem is that the cycle can turn in the other direction, particularly when resources are severely constrained. Increasing demands on teaching time erode the time available for research. Reduced opportunities for research funding lead to the departure of internationally mobile faculty and diminish education. The funding of higher education in Ireland has been hit hard in recent years. Changes to research funding have caused gaps to emerge on our research landscape.
The impact of these is being felt. We are seeing falls in university rankings and in the numbers of research publications and PhD enrolments. These are very early indicators against a base of performance that remains strong, but they cannot be ignored and they are not being ignored.
Two processes are now under way that will have a very significant bearing on these issues. A Government committee is considering the submissions that have been received in relation to the next national strategy for science, technology and innovation. An expert group chaired by Peter Cassells is examining future funding for higher education.
For the long-term health of Irish higher education and research, and the talent and ideas they provide, it is imperative that we get these processes right.
Orla Feely is vice-president of research, innovation and impact at University College Dublin