Could we not have a bit of inspiration?

Having challenged myself to write every day, I’ve turned off Netflix and turned on my computer. I feel I need to keep up with Mary Gallagher (author of Academic Armageddon) who continues to produce fascinating blogs as part of her “In a strange land” series! As an engineer, I always like to read the perspectives of colleagues who work in the humanities. We’re all so focused on our own little niche areas that we fail to stand back and look at the big picture.

For the last number of years, most Universities have been led by academics with a STEM or medical background. Not to go off on a tangent but I have very fond memories of Michael Murphy, former president of UCC, who was one of the first registrars I encountered in St. Vincent’s Hospital. He was always a funny guy and I’d never have pictured him as a university president.

But the emphasis on STEM is a problem in my view.

Anyway, when I was a Newman Fellow in UCD many years ago (I was in the first ‘batch’), Paddy Masterson was the president and he was a lovely man. He was a true academic while being warm, sociable and pretty much the antithesis of the modern CEO. At least that was my perspective.

But those were simpler times, long before the massification of higher education and the demands on senior managers in universities was not what they are today.

These days, we have backed ourselves into a corner. We have the highest rate of third level participation in Europe but the reality seems to be that we can’t afford it. And so universities have had to turn themselves into corporations. I have a great deal of sympathy for senior managers who have to somehow balance the books at a time when student numbers are increasing and state funding is reducing. But some universities have taken to this corporate approach with gusto. I particularly worry for my alma mater, UCD, which seems to have embraced corporatisation like no other. Other institutions have recently launched strategic plans and they all sound the same: more students, especially international ones, more engagement with industry, more facilities to enhance the attractiveness of campuses. More online learning.

And it seems to me that the world of education has found itself in a vicious circle of growth. I can see why this had happened: I think in most cases it’s not ideological but borne out of necessity. Money has to come from somewhere. But it’s all a bit depressing.

Somewhere along the line the pronouncements from all our institutions has become soul-less. Where is the inspiration? Where is the love of knowledge for knowledge’s sake? I know I’m being harsh and I realise that presidents and senior managers have a very tough job but could we not have a bit of hope? You know, the Barack Obama kind.

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