Harvard boss warns over degree focus

THE head of the world’s leading university has warned against a focus on graduating students with degrees more valuable to the economy at the expense of longer-term benefits.

In a lecture to the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin, Harvard president Dr Drew Faust said university bosses globally must work to assure their support for what is invaluable is not eclipsed by understandable efforts to promote the valuable. Her comments come as an expert group here finalises its strategic review of Irish higher education, which is expected to push for a focus on providing skilled workers for a knowledge economy.

Dr Faust, who also met with Taoiseach Brian Cowen yesterday, said too narrow a focus on the present can come at the expense of the past and of the long view that has always been higher learning’s special concern. “When we define higher education’s role principally as driving economic development... we risk losing sight of broader questions... that foster the restless scepticism and unbounded curiosity from which our profoundest understandings so often emerge,” she said.

“Economic growth and scientific and technological advances are necessary but not sufficient purposes for a university.” The higher education strategy review group chaired by economist Dr Colin Hunt has been asked to examine how the sector can be reconfigured to provide impetus to economic renewal. It is also expected to recommend a return of some form of student fees, possibly a system of state loans paid back by graduates. Dr Faust, appointed Harvard’s first female president in 2007, said governments have been driven by the intensely competitive global economy to demand more immediate and tangible returns on investment in higher education.

“Too often such an emphasis on the short term can mean... painful cuts for disciplines whose value, though harder to measure is no less real,” said Dr Faust, a historian and research expert on the American Civil War.

Irish universities and institutes of technology are bracing themselves for further budget cuts next year on top of cuts of 6% over the last two years which have led to academic vacancies not being filled, reductions in student services and some programmes being dropped.

“There is a danger that the focus on higher education as the fundamental engine of economic growth is proving so powerful that it will distort our understanding of all that universities... must be. Such assumptions can... encourage a devaluation of basic scientific research, of investigation that may not yet yield immediate payoffs or solve concrete problems.”

Despite philanthropic endowments worth €26 billion, falling public funding for the Boston university has led to salary cuts and a voluntary retirement scheme. Harvard had a $3.5bn (€2.9bn) budget in 2008 and lists 43 Nobel laureates among its past and current faculty members.


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