This month the government will unveil the criteria for the new BMW – the Border Midlands West Technological University. At the very least it would hold the record for the biggest University at around 12,454 square kilometres.
The Irish Universities Association, representing the university presidents, is already huffing and puffing. Their chief executive, Ned Costello, doesn’t want to see universities that do not “walk, talk or act” like a university. He wants them to have lots of PhDs in their programmes. Professor Ferdinand von Prondzynski, who has served with distinction in Trinity College and as president of DCU, says that universities “should largely provide honours and postgraduate programmes”. Dr Kevin Denny (Economics lecturer at University College Dublin) says that “lack of research activities in some of these institutes of technology is a clincher”.
So what really is the clincher? What makes higher education “higher”? That question as answered in 1852 by John Henry Newman, claimed by UCD as its founder. Newman saw a university as an institution where people came together from all disciplines to deal with the universals – the ultimate things that make sense of the universe.
Newman is quoted by Dr Hugh Brady, UCD’s president, in the current undergraduate prospectus. He explains that the “Horizons” curriculum “draws inspiration from UCD’s founder, John Henry Newman, whose classic work ‘The Idea of a University’ is one of the most enduring texts on the value of a university education. In brief, UCD Horizons aims to provide students with educational depth, breadth and a global perspective.”
This is good as far as it goes, but it is missing that vital ingredient that Newman prescribed – the knowledge of God. Theology was, for him, the crown of the sciences. Nothing new here – Proverbs told us long ago that “the fear of the Lord is the beginning of knowledge”. Or Paul in Colossians, “He is before all things and in him all things hold together”.
Newman put it this way, “all branches of knowledge are connected together, because the subject-matter of knowledge is intimately united in itself, as being the acts and work of the Creator”.
How come, then, that it took until the Education Act of 1997 for the National University of Ireland (of which UCD is a part) to offer lay people degrees in Biblical Studies?
Knowing God is the clincher. And it is our part, as Christian students, lecturers, chaplains, and friends of the university, to provide that missing ingredient.
And all the best to the new BMW. You have to admire their spunk. Let’s hope they get the clincher right too.