By Kevin O’Sullivan
A friend from the further left of the political spectrum once dismissed all academic conferences, seminars, symposia and any other gathering you might care to name, as ‘a bunch of people sitting around a room talking, but doing nothing’. And, playing devil’s advocate, maybe he had a point. Is it really worth paying fees for a bunch of academics to sit around researching and writing papers and books that only they will ever read, while (begrudgingly) doing a bit of teaching on the side?
The short answer is yes, yes it is; but let me rewind a bit first, to what got me started on this discussion. Towards the end of Olivia O’Leary’s recent BBC Radio 4 documentary ‘Ireland: From Boom to Bust’ – an interesting if slightly less than satisfactory piece put together with the help of an odd selection of talking heads (Frank McDonald, Claire Kilroy, Richard Corrigan, some suburban house-owners and a Drogheda taxi-driver) – we are introduced to James Mooney, a 23-year-old quantity surveyor who recently emigrated to London for work. In the midst of recounting his thoroughly modern tale of returning home every five weeks or so, Mooney offered a recollection of his college years: ‘We had lecturers telling us that if we stuck out the course … we’d be well on our way to being millionaires by the time we were 30, 35. You know? As a lecturer he’s probably on a hundred grand, you know what I mean? For doing fifteen hours of work, lecturing a week. Like, it all looked easy to him I suppose. But he had a nice number. I don’t think too many people are going to get a nice number now for a few years like that.’
Say it ain’t so. I’ll never forget the day I started my PhD, when we were told that if we were in it for the money, we should all leave immediately. Nobody told us about the hundred grand 15-hour week. As the hotel porter said to a youthful George Best ensconced in his room with champagne and a group of beautiful women (including Miss World): ‘Where did it all go wrong George? Where did it all go wrong?’
Another bubble bursts. Mooney’s view may have been distorted, but his attitude to lecturers’ salaries, and, by inference, the wealth in the academic system as a whole, is an interesting one. His lecturer may well have been on a €100k annual salary, but I highly doubt s/he worked only fifteen hours a week. And I’d take a guess that s/he had worked fairly hard for twenty odd years to reach that position. To the public at large, however, the visible measure of a lecturer’s work may only be counted in contact hours with students. And rightly so, perhaps, since universities are traditionally centres of learning, to equip students, in some way at least, with the skills for the wider world.
So is there any way of persuading them of the merits of funding for academic research? There should be. Over on his excellent University Diary blog, Dublin City University President Ferdinand von Prondzynski recently discussed the question of funding to Irish universities (and specifically the dreaded government-decided concept: cost efficiency), commenting that in escaping the bust third-level institutions ‘hold the keys to Ireland’s innovation strategy’. Whatever my friend’s wishes for revolution over idle conversation, history has a part to play in this. Perhaps not as cutting edge a role as stem-cell research or the development of renewable energies but an important one in the cultural well-being of our nation as a whole, and a distinctly important one when it comes to understanding patterns of decision making and avoiding the repetition of past mistakes. (Ok, so maybe that last bit hasn’t worked too well recently, but hey, maybe they weren’t listening close enough.)