Major headlines were made this week with the news that the government has greenlit a prodigious project at Grand Canal Dock – an “innovation district” with a Trinity campus at its heart.
The venture, which has been in the works for several years, has won staunch and consistent government support – an endorsement that’s expected to be matched by funding of €150 million in the coming decade.
On the surface, it’s an exciting development: Ireland will gain a world-class research and innovation complex, and universities – particularly Trinity – will be at the vanguard.
For higher education, a sector generally forced to scrape by on crumbs, buzz terms such as “innovation ecoystem” and “world-class research hub” paint an inviting picture of a new, central role in the economy.
Still, though, this modern vision of a university – which is becoming increasingly prevalent – may leave many feeling nostalgic for an educational philosophy that, more and more, seems relegated to the past.
Trinity and other universities have long faced accusations of forgetting the arts, and while the new innovation district promises to be interdisciplinary, it’s hard to believe that certain fields of study won’t take precedence over others.
While Trinity is happy to crow about the great literary icons or philosophy giants that have studied within its walls when selling itself to donors, its actual appetite for funding these disciplines seems consistently on the decline.
Meanwhile, momentum-fuelled projects such as those at Grand Canal Dock steal both headlines and funding. These initiatives herald technological innovation, entrepreneurship, and greater collaboration with corporations as the way forward for universities. At the same time, core funding – or a holistic approach to improving the sector, in other words – is becoming more than ever a thing of the past.
No doubt, the development at Grand Canal Dock is a concrete step towards creating a world-class research institute capable of competing on the global stage. Irish universities can’t reasonably be criticised for looking to the future – or for reimagining their place in it.
But let’s hope that amid the enthusiasm for what lies ahead, Irish universities tread cautiously when it comes to preserving the values that made them great.