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The discourses of higher education in Ireland

Religion, nationalism and economic development

Author - Nora French

 

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The economic dimension

Whereas nationalism had dominated political debate in the country as whole for the first half of the twentieth century, in the 1950s a new generation came to power whose main aim was to develop the country economically. In White’s words (2001: 29), nationalism was replaced by materialism as the dominant theme of political debate. National plans were put in place in 1958 and 1963 for the development of the economy which influenced officials within the Department of Education to look at the development of technical education. The OECD was brought in and its reports in 1964 and 1965 led, by 1980, to the setting up of nine Regional Technical Colleges providing craft and professional education across the country, and the establishment of two National Institutes of Higher Education (NIHEs, now University of Limerick and Dublin City University) for more advanced level technological study.

For the first time, an explicit link was being made between economic development and education. The Department of Education had control over these new institutions (and the older technical colleges). The universities on the other hand were autonomous. A commission on the universities sitting between 1960 and 1967 had a wide brief for university, professional, technological and higher education generally, but did not recommend any new policy developments. In the liberal tradition, the committee’s report defined the university as a place for study and communication of basic knowledge; it declared uncompromisingly that ‘universities as centres of learning, scholarship and liberal education should not be allowed to become overwhelmed by the claims upon them to provide the country with its requirements of skilled manpower’ (White 2001: 44). The universities at this stage were remaining true to Newman, aloof from the calls to use education to develop skills for economic development.

By 1980, university students represented only 60 per cent of the total higher education student population compared with an almost total monopoly in the 1960s (Coolahan 1981: 255). Furthermore the universities were losing out on financial incentives by not aligning themselves with government policy. Also industry had turned directly to education by then to fill its need for highly trained workers, for example, the Manpower Consultative Committee set up in 1978. Under these pressures, the universities did eventually come on board, gearing their programmes more closely to the needs of industry and business with the result that the numbers studying business and engineering doubled between 1981 and 1991 (White 2001: 188).

The overall context and debates on higher education had shifted immensely in a 20 year period from 1970 to 1990. The NIHEs were headed by men who, from their experience in the USA, brought a very different perspective to education. In particular Dr Ed Walsh in Limerick was an outspoken and controversial critic of the liberal values found in Irish universities. He criticized the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake as a misplaced luxury, denigrated Arts degrees. He described the universities as finishing schools where too many of Ireland’s better young men and women were selected for emigration, thanks to an almost non-existent career guidance system and ill-suited university curricula (Palmer 1990; White 2001: 74). As late as 1990 he attacked Newman as a ‘sectarian bigot’ (Walsh 1990) at a symposium on Newman in University College Dublin.

In the deeply recessionary 1980s, the utilitarian approach was at its height. High unemployment and emigration meant that economic needs were to the fore in all aspects of government policy. This changed gradually in the 1990s where a series of official reports and government documents showed an increasing openness to the value of education beyond meeting the skills needs of the market, although the centrality of education to industrial policy was always acknowledged. (See Industrial Policy Review Group (1992) also known as the Culliton Report; Department of Education (1992); Department of Education (1995); Forfas (1996); Higher Educational Authority (1995).)

What was remarkable about the discussions and debates about higher education during this period is that they were dominated and led by non-educationalists – industrialists, economists, politicians, policy-makers within the civil service. Apart from Ed Walsh, there was no academic making a major contribution to public understanding of the idea of a university at the end of the twentieth century. Academics were following where others led, and on the whole they were following the money, provided mainly by the state but in some cases by donations from industrialists and businessmen.

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