As the mother of a student about to sit the leaving certificate, and as a trade unionist, I listened intently to the contributions by Mary Gallagher and Des Freedman at a recent open forum held at DCU around the future of our university system. They spoke passionately about the need for our third level education system to be a place of learning and not just of enterprise. The audience was made up mostly of staff from DCU and I was struck by the need to broaden this debate because, though we may not realise it now, this is an issue that should concern all of us as citizens. The legacy of a failure to critically examine decisions, and a failure to question and engage, is being felt acutely by almost every citizen of this country. In order that we do not repeat the mistakes of the recent past, we must ensure that the next generation is equipped with the language and the self- confidence to reason, to question and to think the unthinkable.
For this reason, it is essential that our universities are places of learning and not simply places of enterprise. It is essential that the next generation learn in an environment where decent work and critical thinking sit side by side, where the arts are valued as much as science and where our university leaders acknowledge the contribution made by all university staff whether they are handing our learners their cup of coffee, their locker receipt or their degree parchment. For that reason, I am supporting the Charter which emerged from that meeting and which lays out some basic principles that should help get our university system back on track.
We need to talk openly about the future of our education system. We need to look at how tax- payer’s money is spent and how this money can be best used in support of decent working conditions. We should support those who will be tomorrow’s critical thinkers as well as tomorrow’s scientists and innovators. It is essential that their education be delivered by educators who are free and not continually harassed. This freedom is not only essential for our lecturers and teachers but for all those who work in our education system and who support our learners. As the first principle of the Charter puts it: “The Irish university is a public good, not a private profit-making institution, and corporations or business interests should not dictate teaching or research agendas”
It seems to me that the current university administrators have swallowed whole the market dogmas that got us into the economic mess we are now in. Critical voices are silenced and, sometimes, even threatened. This is really not what the university should be about. What has happened to the traditional values of tolerance and collegiality or even, dare I say it, academic freedom? In most walks of life, including business, those with the relevant expertise are encouraged to have their say. Why not in universities?
There are many signatories to this Charter already, from Ireland and abroad, and it is clear that they have found a cause which transcends grades, disciplines and even national borders. They, like me, can see the value of a university which is free in every sense of the word. And so as my daughter prepares for her leaving certificate we are preparing a campaign to defend our university so that she, and the class of 2014 and all those who will come after her, will be able to learn to question and to innovate in a university which is free in every sense of the word. Like most parents I want her to have a positive experience of higher education and I want her to learn in an environment where the learning, the innovation and those who deliver the teaching and those who support the teachers are respected and valued. This is possible but we need to talk about it now before it is too late.
Louise O’Reilly, Education Sector Organiser, SIPTU