What are the University of Dublin and the NUI actually for? And what should they do?

Dublin University logo, via WikipediaThe first item in the Trinity College Dublin (TCD) news feed at present is the report that Professor Petros Florides was recently inaugurated as a Pro-Chancellor of the University of Dublin. This reminds me that I often hear the question: “what is the University of Dublin for?”. And in the context of NUI Galway, NUI Maynooth, UCC, UCD et al, I often hear the similar question: “what is the NUI for?” Answers to these questions usually focus on history. The Charter of 1592 which founded TCD established it as “mother of a university”; whilst the Irish Universities Act, 1908 consolidated many of the existing Irish universities and colleges into the National University of Ireland. However, these answers only tell us where the University of Dublin and the NUI came from. They don’t tell us what these institutions are for. Other answers focus on degree-awarding powers, commencements, graduations, university governance, elections, connections with alumni, and ancillary academic services, before trailing off into a slightly embarrassed silence. These answers certainly get closer to telling us what these institutions are for, but they don’t really offer a strong justification for their continuing existence or future relevance. I’m actually a fan of both; and I think that the University of Dublin is symbiotically integral to Trinity College Dublin. Moreover, I do recognise the force of the objection implicit in the question “what are they for?”; and I think that one satisfactory answer might be to expand rather than to contract their roles.

Reading a blogpost yesterday on Tertiary21 dealing with the challenges being faced by higher education suggested one means of such meaningful expansion:

… As William Gibson famously remarked, the future is already here, it just isn’t evenly distributed. It will take until 2100 for that new model of higher education, the shape of which is already clear, to become global, by which time higher education will be almost universal almost everywhere.

Humans, of course, have difficulty in observing change on this scale. We are peculiarly blind to it. It doesn’t help that the new models of higher education are already here, in disguise. Modularisation, lifelong learning, Open universities, distance learning and recognition of prior learning and so on have steadily crept into the mainstream in the last generation. The OU is the largest University in Europe. The Indira Gandhi Open University in India is the largest on earth. For profit entities like the Apollo group, owners of the University of Phoenix, among others, teach millions of students in the developed and increasingly the developing worlds. All use technology enthusiastically and largely eschew the traditional medieval models of the ‘Universities of Place’ and the paleo-pedagogy of the lecture. The distance and blended learning models they adapt are leaking back into the conventional university sector, almost imperceptibly dissolving the concept of Universities as being fixed in space and time.

NUI logo, via Wikipedia style=

In my view, this is the role the University of Dublin and the NUI should increasingly play. They should take advantage of their degree awarding powers, their established international reputations, and their existing academic staff, to develop wide-ranging online distance education. As I have said before on this blog (1 | 2 | 3), the best way for established universities to meet the challenges posed by online colleges is to beat them to the punch, and offer a better version of the idea first. In, say, 10 years time, the answer to question “What are the University of Dublin and the NUI for?” should include not only their history and current functions but also a well-developed and well-regarded online presence. This will take time, which is why I suggested 10 years: the examples cited by Tertiary21 – the Open University, the Indira Gandhi National Open University, the University of Phoenix – have all taken quite some time to develop; they are all different; and there are many other distance and online models. However, if this is the shape of things to come, then the University of Dublin and the NUI should embrace it now. They should develop their own distinctly hibernian approaches to online distance education which can identify and enhance synergies between their existing real world colleges and their emerging online offerings, rather than being forced to catch up with the trend in 10 years time when it is well-entrenched and the market leaders have already emerged. The technology is with us now; all that remains to be seen is who will best exploit it in the immediate future.