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The discourses of higher education in Ireland

Religion, nationalism and economic development

Author - Nora French

 

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The role of the university today

There has been little research into higher education in Ireland and in particular, since Newman’s time, little philosophical development of the concept of a university. The role of the university has been determined on pragmatic grounds, on the needs of the state firstly for national self-determination and identification and more recently, for economic development. The vacuum was apparent in the late 1980s when it came to deciding to change the status of the NIHEs to universities; the decision to do so was made on the grounds of the branding and marketing needed by those institutions rather than on the basis of what makes a university, what is its essence. (See Technological Education 1987; White 2001: Ch. 10.)

The subsequent legislation for the new universities stated very briefly that the object of the university was ‘the pursuit of learning and the advancement of knowledge through teaching, research and collaboration with educational, business, professional, trade union, cultural and other bodies’ (University of Limerick Act 1989; Dublin City University Act 1989, paragraph 3(2) in both cases). Thus their role was defined very much in the tradition of utilitarianism compared with the traditional universities whose role had not yet been defined in legislation but who had always seen their role in terms of the liberal tradition.

New legislation for the universities as a whole was drafted in 1997 and the Universities Act for the first time defined in law the role of a university (Universities Act 1997: paragraph 12. See Appendix.).

Rather than reflecting Newman’s one clear view of the function of a university, this legislation reflects the unwieldy multiple demands on the modern university, the so-called multiversity (Rothblatt 1997: 12–19). It is an attempt to be all inclusive, incorporating elements of Newman as well as von Humboldt’s German model and Ortega’s multi-dimensional model, along with the more recent demands placed on universities in terms of accessibility and accountability. There is a danger in it that the essential nature of the university is being submerged by the demands to fulfil a wide range of social roles.

Knowledge for knowledge’s sake is in the prime position in the legislation. If it had been drafted in the previous two decades, this might not have been the case because of the dominance of vocationalism. The universities were thus successful in maintaining the broad liberal view of university education which they had sought (Conference of Heads of Irish Universities 1993). The contribution of the university to economic life does feature (Appendix f and g) but is not given undue prominence.

Although Newman’s emphasis on the learning and the intellectual development of students are encapsulated in (b) and (d), the legislation in its first sentence puts research on an equal footing with teaching and learning as the primary object of a university, reflecting the modern international norm. For a long time, Irish universities had been predominantly teaching establishments with little support for research (White 2001: 272; Osborne 1996: 57). In the 1990s, many reports had called for this to change, prominent among them the Science, Technology and Innovation Advisory Council report (1995) which recommended funding for research because research capability was needed for the economy. The argument was won; the need for research was included in the National Development Plan in 1999, and since then a considerable amount of funding has been made available for this purpose, in particular €865 million through the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions. Economic success in the country since the mid 1990s made such funding provision easier to achieve but the impetus came from concerns to develop the economy, not from the education sector itself, and not from purely educational concerns.

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