Public conversation on universities is welcome


OPINION:Robust dialogue between the universities and government allows the best interests of society to be identified, writes SALTERS STERLING

THE RECENT public conversation in The Irish Timesabout the condition of our universities is greatly to be encouraged. That it is much focused on one institution, as it has been, may not be as helpful as is necessary to receive maximum benefit from the exchanges. Several matters of a historical and contextual nature need to be part of the considerations. The first of these is that the early progenitors of our universities had, as a core objective, the education and training of clerks for the glory of God in church and state.

In other words, they were committed to the provision of the qualified personnel required to operate the machinery of good welfare and good order in the temporal and spiritual realms. The historic faculties are law, medicine and divinity; all three of them vocational and professional. To deny a practical utilitarian objective for the university is to do less than justice to its roots.

In the course of the pursuit of this objective, those engaged in it very quickly came to the conclusion that their patrons could by injudicious interference distort the objective and so there developed claims for institutional autonomy which over centuries were to defy popes and emperors, barons and bishops, corporations and communities and in more recent times, magnates and merchants.

The equation that knowledge equals power had been recognised and the purveyors of knowledge were determined to safeguard it from distortion. What they failed to recognise is that the pursuit of autonomy can be self-corrupting. John Donne’s insight that no man is an island was inadequately recognised and so freedom became licence and the lure of the lagoon seduced hearts and minds from the challenge of the horizon – thus Oxford and Cambridge for much of the 18th century and well into the 19th century; in the end both universities required commissions of enquiry and royal commissions to recreate the equilibrium needful to the right pursuit of teaching, research and scholarship.

The equation that knowledge equals power originally had a simple significance: the clerks knew how to draw up charters, make grants, file depositions, conduct courts. As the industrial revolution progressed, wealth creation moved beyond the resources of labour and land into the world of machinery.

So engineering moved into the arena of university activity – 1842 in Trinity College, second only to Glasgow 1839 in the two islands – and the knowledge/power equation became more developed. In the mid-20th century that equation underwent an exponential transformation where knowledge equals not just power but also wealth creation. This is what is meant when reference is made to the knowledge economy, and directly deriving from that is the intense desire of governments as funding agents and security and welfare providers to control and manipulate the sources of wealth creation.

We should not be surprised by, and indeed should be grateful for, a robust dialogue between government and universities. It is out of just such a dialogue that society can expect its best interests to be identified and provision made for them.

An excellent example of this process proving productive occurred in Ireland a generation ago. In the latter years of the 1970s, several business figures identified a deficit in university and institutes of technology courses and curricula in the engineering and emerging technologies areas.

A national manpower committee was established and based on submissions from the colleges increased numbers, new courses and conversion courses were introduced in the academic year 1979-1980. It took from February to October 1979 to get the exercise going. It was an exhilarating and successful eight months, the outcome of which was a harvest of high quality graduates who contributed significantly to Ireland’s educational reputation internationally and from whom came the leadership for the advanced technology component of the Celtic Tiger. Both government and colleges co-operated though government defaulted on the fourth year of capital and recurrent resource flow. This example in itself highlights the mutuality of interdependence of government and colleges, a mutuality born out of reciprocal need and sometimes, but not always, endowed with mutual respect. Spin doctoring has no role in government/university discourse. The Government needs the long horizons of academe to temper the syncopation of political necessity. The universities need the resources and also the sense of urgency of government goal setting.

If there is any lesson to be learned in the present moment from the plethora of unsavoury experience stretching from priest to politician and embracing banker, developer, doctor and garda, to name some but by no means all of each of these professions, it is that in every area of life, ethical foundations are essential to a commonwealth of prosperity and happiness. Ethics is not just morality; ethics is much more than the best of good custom and practice. It is the constant reflection on what constitutes right behaviour, right relationships and right understanding in perpetuity. All the disciplines are essential to its pursuit – philosophy and law, history and literature, languages and the various arts, theology and education, in continual conversation with the sciences, technologies, medicine, the therapies, sociology and psychology and political science, economics and business studies.

This conversation needs to be conducted not just at the research level but in every classroom and lecture theatre. It needs to happen between university and society, and very particularly between the university and the political classes. It is the ancient role of the philosopher writ large. Any government worth its salt must be every bit as concerned with the humanities as with the technologies.

The contemplation of such universal discourse leads inevitably to an emphasis on the significance of academic freedom. In the pursuit of ethical wisdom, academic freedom – the freedom to research whatsoever and publish the results is a sine qua non. When such freedom is proscribed, the results are historic howlers – Copernicus and Galileo to name but two – with church being the embarrassed culprit in both cases. Only where such freedom exists can peer evaluation and judgment operate, and such is essential to the proper functioning of the dialectic.

This freedom is the intellectual guarantee that dogma is not allowed to dominate outside its own domain. This freedom requires a community ethos which values dissent and promotes discourse equally as much as it values loyalty and solidarity. It requires space. Academic freedom can easily slide into academic license. Vigilance is always necessary. The greatest cause for concern in some of the current correspondence about the university world in Ireland is the suggestion that top-down management resents diversity of response and rejects collaborative decision taking. It would appear to be the case that a particular model of institutional management is the cause.

Worldwide there is no one model of university governance and management. Different ages and cultures have developed quite diverse practices. If the criteria of evaluation are to include competitive excellence by some manner of means measured internationally, then one thing is certain – the management of universities must be able to attract, accommodate and assist a galaxy of stars across a range of disciplines along with lesser luminaries and support staff. Neither my knowledge nor my imagination can immediately think of an industrial or commercial model which will do justice to the needs of a university.

The model which does come to mind is that of a full scale symphony orchestra, the conductor of which is certainly a person of great authority, and even a dictator for public performances, but that is not how rehearsals happen. The conductor is certainly not a chief executive officer.

Respect, upwards and downwards and inwards and outwards, is essential. Even the orchestral model is inadequate for the orchestral score is already written.

For much of the university, the score is still in composition and always will be. Universities are sui generis. Their excellence comes with a health warning for any and every government, and all management: “Friend, come no further, lest thou do thyself harm – by doing them harm.”

W Salters Sterling is the former academic secretary of Trinity College, Dublin

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