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Learning for University, Government, Society

W. Salters Sterling*


For quite some time now, research and development have been a major preoccupation of government as it articulates its expectations of the universities in Ireland – specifically research and development that will assist in both job creation and wealth creation. Much indeed has been achieved. Science Foundation Ireland and PRTLI funding have borne good fruit. Research and development however are only two of the functions of the university. Teaching has always been regarded as of primary importance. To an extent this is recognized by government and those who employ our graduates. However, such recognition is frequently of a negative order, well illustrated by recent public criticism of the quality of our graduates and comment on the supposed inflation of grades.

This paper, through the questions it poses, seeks to replace the language of teaching with the language of learning as a way of speaking and writing about the functions of universities. In so doing, it aspires to achieve a greater symbiosis of teaching and research in the experience of learning at the undergraduate level. The paper focuses exclusively on the undergraduate programme for it is in that learning activity that the foundations are laid for higher-degree work inside the academy and career progress outside.

The paper was prepared at the invitation of Dr Michael Murphy, President of University College Cork, with the intention that it might be considered by the Academic Council of the College. The invitation was prompted by an article published in the Irish Times (3rd June 2010) which I wrote following an earlier article and correspondence which had been prompted by developments in University College Dublin in recent years. Reference to my article was made by President Faust of Harvard University in the course of her lecture in Trinity College Dublin (30th June 2010) to the members of the Royal Irish Academy, specifically in relation to the continuing importance of the Humanities. I have not developed those arguments here, believing in the first instance that what is important is to demonstrate the central importance of learning to the undergraduate experience, learning which will invite the kind of excellence in our graduates so desired by government and employers and so esteemed by the university itself as an institution throughout history. What follows are what I believe to be the key questions for the organization and conduct of the academic business of a university in the first decades of the 21st century in Ireland. First however, the credo which has inspired and continues to inspire my understanding of what the university is about: the following quotation is from a lecture by Professor Henry Steele Commager entitled Imagination in Politics, given as the third in a series of five Frank Gerstein Lectures, delivered in January and February 1963 in York University, Canada, and all published by the University of Toronto Press under the title Imagination and the University. Commager writes:

The University is one of the supreme examples of the inventive and creative capacity of mankind. Its function has been from the beginning not to be local, or national, but to serve a larger commonwealth, the commonwealth of learning. It is to provide just that group of men and women whose business is to liberate themselves from the pressure of the immediate, of race, of faith, of class, of nation, and to transcend space. The primary loyalty of a university and the primary loyalty of the scholar is to their community. But we must ever remember that that community is not the particular and immediate community in which they find themselves, it is the great community of mankind. It stretches back to the beginning of arts and letters and science and philosophy; it stretches forward to whatever future may be permitted us. It is not a community of a single state or nation; it is a community of learning and of science itself.

It has been my experience in both Ireland and Britain that, if we can subscribe to the inspiration of that vision, then we can do business however uncomfortably with government, as well as pursue the business of the academy with some success and not a little enjoyment.

In the Irish Times article, I called for a robust conversation with government in order to establish an agreed agenda for the work of our universities in the immediate future. Such a conversation would be the responsibility of presidents and governing bodies. Such a conversation would be regular and would involve not only cabinet but senior members of the permanent government, in other words, the secretaries general of key departments of state. The assumption underlying the value of such a conversation is that a common objective shared between academy and government is the quality of our graduates – quality not measured exclusively by the mastery of a body of knowledge and the techniques associated with acquiring it, but incorporating aspects of quality to do with inventiveness of mind, resoluteness of purpose and self-confidence of conviction, all of which are facets of the cutting edge academic researcher as they are also of the thrusting entrepreneurial businessman or woman. With notable exceptions – more rare in Ireland than in Britain – I have been surprised by the degree to which those whose hands are on the levers of power and of resource are suspicious of and/or ignorant of universities as institutions, in spite of, or could it possibly be because of, almost all of them are graduates themselves. The robust conversation will need to take that underlying wariness into account and over time dispel it.

However it is not just with and through government that the university relates to society; the largest interfaces between the university and society occur annually and are at the beginning and end of the undergraduate experience – i.e. admission and graduation. Under the auspices of the Central Applications Office, the colleges have over the years refined both the entrance requirements and the admission process. Given that the overwhelming number of new entrants offer Leaving Certificate entrance qualifications, have we considered regularly how valuable and appropriate their skills are for specific university courses? In particular, have we considered whether or not some unlearning experiences may be necessary during the first undergraduate year, and if so, have we implemented learning processes to effect that unlearning? Intellectual bad habits can slow immensely the learning process. Do we make explicit the fact that the intellectual priorities of the university may differ considerably from those of the schools as they are currently presented? For example, that memory learning is of less significance than analyzing, evaluating and reflecting on information? Since ability in the sciences is deemed to be of such importance for wealth creation in society, and in the context of the recent disclosure that less than 50% of secondary-school teachers in mathematics are ill- equipped to teach that subject, what should the schools of mathematics and education be doing in our universities to rectify the situation in double quick time? Here is a specific area of university/society engagement in which we could embark with military precision equaling that of the 1979 Manpower Programme which I used as an illustration of such engagement in the Irish Times article. To propose an up-skilling programme for secondary-school teachers of mathematics and science will test the metal of the government’s commitment to a smart economy.

Perhaps of even greater importance is the interface at the other end. Are we able to say to students, parents, employers, government and society at large what our degrees represent? As examiners coming to conclusions and making judgments about individuals, are we making claims about:

These, and the following questions, are prompted by the regularly occurring criticisms made by employers and listened to by government. To be able to respond to them with authority may well require a comprehensive review of each course, its content, forms of delivery and assessment.

The more contemporary way of considering course design is to start with what the end result (as suggested above) might look like. In this respect, evaluation procedures are of crucial importance and it is only when these have been determined that one should proceed to a review of content and method of delivery. The next sections follow that order. It should be stressed that, in determining the end, both content and learning process are of interlocking importance. The significance of course content can be diluted by an in-appropriate form of delivery/access.

Over the last 30 years there has occurred transforming elaboration of the instruments of assessment in universities. The end-of-year examinations, while continuing in some colleges and in some courses, are now set in the context of various forms of continuous assessment, project work, independent study, dissertations, MCQ papers, open-book examinations and other forms of assessment. Much of this was in response to undergraduate pressure to spread the workload while some of it was to allow intellectual skills beyond sustained memory work to be tested. The widespread use of second marking has considerably reduced if not eliminated the possibility of prejudiced evaluation. Several questions arise which should be understood in the context of the general questions earlier in this paper as they relate to what we can say and stand over in respect of our degree awards. The questions are –

Are the results of assessments seen to contribute actively to the ongoing learning process? Are there built in opportunities for undergraduates to learn from their results in a much more concrete and explicit way than just “could do better”?


What priority should be attached to:

Linking to issues relating to the knowledge landscape – if this landscape is now so extensive that it is impossible to have little more than some awareness of its shape and extent, is there value in incorporating a consideration of ethical issues in the undergraduate curriculum as an experience of –



Beyond doubt all staff make a contribution to the welfare of the community of higher learning that is the university. The word ‘staff’ is a generic term. This section is concerned with those staff who constitute the front-line members of the learning community – those of all grades who are called university teachers, library staff, laboratory staff, computer staff who serve directly a learning function; it also includes those who may be employed exclusively for research purposes.

All these staff live in times of extraordinary pressure – increasing student numbers, both undergraduate and postgraduate, massive governmental and societal expectations, recruitment embargo, diminishing non-pay resources except in those areas which are successful in research bids, performance measures, international evaluation league tables frequently designed to emphasize competition rather than collaboration. Just as I began this paper with a credo, I record now my empathy with those who bear the heat and burden of each day of learning engagement. I can well understand therefore if an initial response to this paper as an invitation to engage in a sustained conversation about the higher learning raison d’etre is a negative one. In recognizing this, my own initial response was one of polite refusal to put pen to paper quite literally. Second and subsequent thoughts suggest that there may well be value for staff in opening up this conversation. I am convinced of the necessity to enquire –

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By choosing to pose questions rather than argue answers I have attempted to give contemporary substance to the themes of imagination in the university and imagination in politics. By choosing the language of learning rather than the language of teaching or the language of management, or yet again, the language of supermarket commerce, I have been inviting readers to engage in an exercise of the imagination; not an exercise inspired by some kind of university utopia but rather an exercise of imagination where roots are the most inspirational moments of the universities’ history, indeed, of the history of the academy. It is to the pursuit of learning that the best of our university ancestors returned time and time again as the best description of their consuming activity, rejecting the pursuit of truth as too pretentious, and the pursuit of knowledge as lacking that dynamic which a participle rather than a noun conveys.

The exercise of the imagination is the uniting bond between those who work in the halls of the humanities and those who work in the laboratories of the sciences and technologies. The exercise of the imagination may just possibly produce the language and the register of discourse which will allow the university person, pursuing the diminution of ignorance, to engage creatively in conversation with the politician, seeking with integrity to serve the common good, and with the entrepreneurs seeking, through management of risk, to maximize opportunity from which all, and not just a few, can benefit.

Because of the way their minds are being honed day in day out, those for whom the academy is home have a huge contribution to make. Considerable justification for this approach comes in the obituary tribute to Professor Alan Gilbert, historian, published in the Independent on 18th August, 2010. It declared that Gilbert, as inaugural president and vice-chancellor of the University of Manchester, Britain’s largest university, and one with a major technological component “will be remembered as a passionate supporter of students. Everything he did was characterized by a fundamental commitment to the creation, application and transmission of knowledge through open, disciplined and rational enquiry. He believed that universities must be a core and valued part of our societies and that they exist principally for the enduring betterment of humankind”.