Does the Irish University need saving? A new campaign, called Defend the University, seems to think so. This campaign was launched in late November 2013 by two unions, SIPTU and the Irish Federation of University Teachers. The campaign’s ten point charter outlines fears that Irish universities are becoming subject to increasing managerialism, bureaucratization and the involvement of business interests at a cost to the quality and direction of higher education. The campaign received over 1,000 signatures from Ireland’s seven universities in its first month, testament to the popularity of its ideas. The College Tribune asked Professor Ronnie Munck why Defend the University is important and why it has become so popular.
How did the Defend the University campaign come about?
“The Defend the University Charter started more or less by accident a couple of months ago around two public meeting on the present state of the university held at DCU and Maynooth on the same day. Some people asked for a ‘manifesto’ to encapsulate the issues raised and thus the 10 point Charter was developed by a number of academics and support staff at DCU. The principles around the need for independence from a business agenda, for a more transparent form of governance, for a genuine student centred learning experience and so on were fairly widely accepted. What was surprising was the speed with which the charter signatories increased (over a 1000 in just over a month) and the depth of feeling that we seemed to tap into.”
What are your three key concerns about the way that Irish universities are run at the moment?
“There are 10 Charter principles many people have signed up to; they should probably be taken as a whole. If I was asked to name the top three concerns I would say:
A creeping business agenda inserting itself at the heart of the Irish university with really no discussion whatsoever with students and staff.
A growing bureaucratisation of the university and the death of collegiality which has caused a new air of compliance and, to be blunt, fear amongst academics;
A reduction of the student experience to a set of skills needed to get a job and the fading away of the wider or deeper purpose of the university to foster knowledge and creativity.”
Why is this campaign important for students?
“Students are entitled to free access to higher education as this will advance the needs of society as a whole. An educated and intellectually free population is an asset to any country. If students do not take an active interest in the university it will be privatised, courses will be closed down, the number and quality of lecturers will diminish and ultimately you will be taught through the wonderful lecturer free world of e-learning taken to its logical consequences. Students want jobs (of course!) but they also want something more I think. The dumbing down of the university as it focuses on short term business needs and not students needs is bad news.”
What big changes would you like to see in Irish universities?
“To start with we just want to see a debate on the future of the Irish university without preconditions and on a level playing field. Then we would like to see the university Presidents signing up to the Charter as token of good faith. More generally I would like to see an Irish university:
* where the staff and student voice is heard more clearly;
* where educators and not entrepreneurs craft the teaching and research agendas;
* where the driver of the university mission is the creation of knowledge and not profit.”
How can academic staff and students support this campaign?
“Well they can of course sign up to the Charter online (defendtheuniversity.ie), join in with debates online but also they can hold meeting at every campus and begin to ask ‘What is a University For?’ The present course is both dangerous and unsustainable. We really do need to all be engaged in the search for a great Irish university fit for purpose as a public good, serving society at large and not any particular interest group.”