The role of universities


Sir, – When universities bow to pressure from industry to produce less learned but more skilled graduates, they do students a disservice. Degrees take at least three or four years to complete; there is sufficient time to teach skills useful to the workplace and also to expose students to ideas from other disciplines that might help them to develop insight, perspective and critical thinking.

The drive to strip away spurious learning in favour of more practical skills has a whiff of anti-intellectualism about it. Education is diminished when it is limited to mastering isolated and narrow competencies. Science programmes should be seen as incomplete if their focus is entirely technical.

It’s not just science students that would benefit from greater exposure to the humanities; students of the humanities need greater exposure to science. Science, technology, and economics occupy centre stage in western culture. Universities have a responsibility to offer students some understanding of these. Gone are the days when innumeracy can be seen as a badge of honour. Writers, artists and journalists need a working knowledge of science if they are to comment on modern society in an informed way.

It would do no harm if an engineering student had to take a break from learning about quantum tunnelling to study the even less intuitive theorising of German Enlightenment philosophers. Nor would the world stop spinning if a student of Middle English had to be taught enough science to be able to write an essay on the Copenhagen interpretation, or to solve first-order differential equations. If the experience of cross-disciplinary study was only enough to make science, technology, engineering and mathematics students less dismissive of the humanities, or arts students less flippant about an ignorance of maths, then something would have been achieved. CP Snow in his famous essay “The Two Cultures” lamented the growing gap between the arts and science. Since then specialisation has increased. The recondite expert has replaced the erudite scholar. We have deepened our skills, but narrowed our learning. – Yours, etc,


Dublin 6W.