Trends in higher education


Sir, – James O’Sullivan raises some reasonable points about recent trends in higher education, notably an apparent emphasis on “skills” (“Universities have become like Ikea – just follow the instructions”, Education Opinion, February 7th). There is a suggestion in his column that these trends are driven by neoliberal politicians aided by armies of faceless administrators.

In fact, while external pressures have been the cause of many of the changes that have occurred in higher education (modularisation and semesterisation being an obvious example), modern-day higher education has also been profoundly affected by educators themselves, especially those who have a particular philosophy of “teaching and learning”. This philosophy is one where our role is seen as “producing” graduates with clearly articulated knowledge, skills and attributes. As a result, we have created a system where vast amounts of time and energy are spent, by administrators and academics alike, on documenting and regulating our various teaching activities. A whole new language has evolved, one that makes liberal use of words like “mapping”, “matrix”, “alignment” “attribute” and “outcome”. It’s turgid stuff but many academics believe passionately in it – and that is their right.

So it is not a case of academics versus administrators or even government; it’s about the existence of fundamental differences in opinion – between academics – as to what precisely higher education is for; it’s about the differing expectations that we have of our students; and it’s about differing opinions as to the extent to which individual academics should be trusted to deliver high quality teaching

In short, it’s not a battle between nasty neoliberals and pure academics. It’s a lot more complicated than that and maybe these are issues that academics need to thrash out among themselves before blaming politicians or managers. – Yours, etc,


Associate Professor,

School of Biotechnology,

Dublin City University,

Dublin 9.