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Sunday 20 February 2011

A university must never be a factory

Academics may be difficult or eccentric but good ones must be cherished, says Ruth Dudley Edwards

LAST week, it emerged that Dr Frederic Royall, 53, -- who during a University of Limerick friendly soccer match had punched electronics engineer Dr Hooman Reyhani, 43, in the face, causing him to fall and fracture his leg -- had paid €100,000 in a civil settlement. Legal costs were €45,000 and medical expenses €30,000; the crippled Reyhani is left with only €25,000 and says he'd rather have had €100 and a proper apology.

Sorry though I am for the unfortunate Reyhani, I laughed when I saw the assailant who hadn't known how to apologise was the head of UL's School of Languages, Literature, Culture and Communication. No surprises there: however cultivated, the generality of academics are poor communicators -- especially with each other. (This, of course, doesn't apply to those academics who are among my best friends.)

I grew up in an academic household: my father was a history professor in University College Dublin. Over the kitchen table, I learned of rows, plots and conspiracies not just in UCD, but in every other Irish university. As a student, I cared passionately about who would get the chair of this and that, and I became a post-graduate in Cambridge to ready myself for an academic career. It was when I found the dons there made the shenanigans in UCD seem as innocent as Winnie the Pooh and Piglet playing in the Hundred Acre Wood that I fled to the real world.

But I never lost my fascination with academia: it's even been the inspiration for two of my satirical crime novels. There are innumerable murder mysteries set in that strange enclosed world where people hate each other for reasons that would bewilder an outsider. Henry Kissinger got it right when he remarked that "university politics are vicious precisely because the stakes are so small".

Some Irish academics, however, are these days arguing over a really important issue, highlighted last year in an Irish Times article by Tom Garvin, Emeritus Professor of Politics in UCD. As intellectually combative as he is distinguished, Garvin said that Irish universities were being ruined by the grey philistinism of "commercially-minded presidents with narrow intellectual outlooks". Bureaucrats deny funding to researchers who can't say what their research will discover: "The idea that knowledge is an end in itself has become alien," according

to Garvin. UCD, he alleged, "increasingly resembles an English provincial college, run on authoritarian top-down lines, profligate financially, and anti-intellectual".

Last month, Garvin spoke at a Dublin meeting of more than 200 third-level lecturers protesting against the implementation of the Croke Park agreement in their institutions. "Ireland," he said, "went from a condition in which no connection was seen between education and economic development in 1950 to a condition in 2011 when it is believed that education has no other purpose than to further economic development."

The group's contention was that academic freedom was threatened by proposals to erode the tenure that made it impossible to sack academics. They are also worked up about proposals for longer working hours, shorter holidays and more managerial control.

Yet for a lazy, unscrupulous person, a job in a university is a passport to heaven. There have been many who taught the minimum hours, cared nothing for their students, did little or no research and let their conscientious colleagues do all the work. While I care deeply about maintaining academic integrity, I have no problem with requiring all academics to do a decent job and making incompetence a sacking offence. At the protest meeting, our ex-Taoiseach, Dr Garret FitzGerald -- once an economics lecturer in UCD -- gave a timely warning.

Academics should "be concerned with the restoring of genuinely academic issues, leaving to the unions the business of pay and conditions. If we are to be successful in defending academic standards, it has to be done in a way that is visibly not self-interested, not concerned about pay and conditions but concerned about genuine academic freedom, about research standards and about the real academic issues."

He is so right. The special pleading of greedy time-servers could wreck what is a vital debate about Ireland's future. All my life I've been grateful for the inspiration and intellectual excitement of UCD. Academics may often be cantankerous, eccentric, difficult and even violent, but the good ones transform the lives of their students and should be cherished. Slavish acceptance of the Hunt report on Higher Education -- which seemed unable to differentiate between a university and a factory -- would be a disaster.

The incoming government will have horrendous problems to wrestle with, but it cannot afford to ignore the serious threat to higher education posed by bureaucrats who despise free thought, the clash of ideas and the kind of idle intellectual curiosity that produced Darwin's Origin of the Species.

Ruth Dudley Edwards

© Ruth Dudley Edwards