UCD reforms meet needs of students and society


OPINION:Tom Garvin is wrong. Harking back to a non-existent golden age for universities will not equip students to meet the challenges of tomorrow, write MARY DALYand BRIGID LAFFAN

THE UNIVERSITY is one of very few medieval institutions to occupy an important place in the modern world. Universities have survived in the past because they did not stand still, and while respectful of tradition, it is vital that they adapt to contemporary needs of students and society. To quote John Henry Newman (founding rector of the Catholic University of Ireland, UCD’s antecedent): “To live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.”

There were three items on the Irish university system in The Irish Timesin recent days: a supportive editorial last Monday; Garret FitzGerald’s weekly column last Saturday; and an opinion piece by Tom Garvin on the same day.

It is regrettable that the most inaccurate piece was penned by our esteemed former colleague. Tom Garvin, emeritus professor at UCD, is no longer engaged in the day-to-day life of the university, and he is therefore somewhat distant from the challenges we confront. His article – “Grey philistines taking over our universities”, Opinion and Analysis – reads like a lament for a golden age which never existed (unless he wants a return to the time when only the elite went to university).

UCD has grown from a university that educated such an elite to one with over 24,000 students across all disciplines. The Belfield campus is home to some 30,000 people who come and go every day.

Today’s UCD is dramatically different to the UCD of even 2000, let alone the 1960s; the pace of change is much greater than at any other time in its history. Higher education globally is changing and it is important that Irish universities respond to this. This does not mean slavishly following all international trends but does require openness to change and improvement.

UCD is proud of the achievements of the past five years. Five years ago UCD’s CAO first preferences were falling, there were fewer scholarly publications than today and UCD languished towards the bottom of funding awards tables. Three achievements stand out. First, the successful launch of UCD Horizons has established a truly modular curriculum that is greatly welcomed by our undergraduate students.

Second, UCD is a leader in graduate education with 31 per cent of all new doctoral students in the country.

Third, UCD has made substantial progress towards becoming one of Europe’s leading research-intensive universities. This is underlined by a 230 per cent increase in research income, the creation of five research institutes, the establishment of a number of other strategic research clusters, and a 50 per cent increase in peer-reviewed publications along with above average citation rates.

Being within the top 100 universities, according to the TimesHigher Education World University Rankings, is important to students, staff, employers and to Ireland. The achievements were built on a radical transformation of UCD’s academic structures and of academic promotions which were overhauled to reward excellence in scholarship and teaching. Prior to the reform of recruitment and promotions, UCD could only recruit at two levels, early career academics and full professors.

Now it can hire at different levels of seniority and there are multiple pathways to professorship. Reform is challenging and can be uncomfortable but without reform, institutions fail to keep up with their environment and their core mission.

Those with fond memories of traditional university lectures can rest assured that lectures remain important, but they are not necessarily the best mechanism for fostering a “free-thinking student tradition”.

While professors and lecturers are not told how to do their teaching, they are asked not to leave the entire assessment of students’ work to the traditional examination. To break the culture of intellectual conformity – the belief that the professor holds the key to all knowledge – we are encouraging more active student engagement. So today’s first year English students may find themselves working in a group to devise a marketing plan for Shakespeare’s Globe Theatre – an exercise that requires them to be knowledgeable about the London theatre in Shakespeare’s time: the plays, actors, and wider culture.

First-year psychology students analyse the impact of video games on mental health, cheating in sport and how to measure self-esteem. Students of modern languages hone their skills on web-based exercises that can be accessed in college or at home.

UCD Horizons enables medical students to take philosophy, commerce students to study organisational psychology, architecture students to learn about archaeology, and future lawyers to study James Joyce. Students now gain credit for creative writing, and for performing in orchestras and choirs.

Student societies continue to thrive. Indeed, the LH and Law societies have recently attracted leading international speakers and encourage discussion on global issues such as war crimes and religious beliefs and values. There is nothing philistine about any of this.

The UCD research culture has changed; like other aspects of university life, it is now more diverse. Books remain at the heart of academic life for many of our disciplines. Sole scholars at UCD are recognised and rewarded.

But team-based research is often equally rewarding, making it possible to tackle bigger, more complex projects in a shorter time, and enabling senior scholars to pass on their learning to younger colleagues.

No one in UCD has questioned the right of university academics to pursue their individual research in whatever direction their creativity takes them. UCD is committed to scholarship for its own sake, but is also aware of our public obligations to inform and engage with topics of contemporary importance. The recent symposium organised by the UCD college of human sciences on Welfare state retrenchment and social cohesion: lessons from social research, was attended by many senior public servants.

The reality of today’s world puts added pressures on us all. But for the many UCD staff, dedicated to teaching and scholarship, the reward is knowledge and the transmission of that knowledge to the next generation.

Prof Mary Daly is principal of the UCD college of arts and Celtic studies and Prof Brigid Laffan is principal of the UCD college of human sciences