What are universities for?

 

Sir, – Tom Boland, chief executive of the Higher Education Authority, claims that the latest exercise in assessing performance in Irish higher education “offers proof to those who fund it, and rely on it, that it is meeting national needs”, (“We finally know for sure how our colleges are faring”, March 15th).

While I’m sure the assessment is rigorous and broad-ranging, the problem is that it offers no way of critically examining the paradigm that dominates higher education, the conception of what it is for and how it best serves society.

Those of us who work in the social sciences and humanities understand competing paradigms as being the central dynamic driving social change; unfortunately those who run our universities seem largely illiterate of such realities.

Mr Boland’s claim can only be accepted if we define “national needs” very narrowly and in a very economistic way.

If we ask broader questions about how our students conceive of the good society and what we in Ireland need to do to get there, most students in my experience are left tongue-tied and lacking anything worthwhile to say.

The real challenge to assess the quality of our higher education system is to find ways of capturing how well it challenges students to grapple with competing paradigms of social change and the values that underlie them. That might be a survey worth reading.

– Yours, etc,

Prof PEADAR KIRBY

University of Limerick.