Dave Duggan’s university proposal is too modest

Playwright Dave Duggan working at his Northland Avenue home this week. DER4514MC002
Playwright Dave Duggan working at his Northland Avenue home this week. DER4514MC002

Writing in this paper, Dave Duggan made an imaginative contribution to the Derry university debate.

His “modest proposal” was obviously intended to echo Dean Swift’s 1729 satirical essay, ‘A Modest Proposal’ in which Swift suggested the Irish should eat their own children.

Swift didn’t actually mean people should eat children. It was his way of expressing disgust at poverty early in the 18th century. It was intended to shock the English who had perpetrated many injustices on Ireland.

Perhaps there’s a parallel there with the notion that injustices today are being perpetrated on the west by an administration focused on the more prosperous east. “As ever with our historic city, executive power rests elsewhere and leaves us all… presenting our open palms eastwards in a gesture of pleading,” writes Dave.

I’ve no idea how seriously we’re intended to take the latest “Modest Proposal”. If it’s intended to echo Swift’s proposal then it highlights the issue but isn’t meant as a serious suggestion.

I hope that’s the case, because it doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. I’m sorry to pour cold water on the proposal, but somebody has to.

The suggestion is that, “we open a university, to be called The University of Derry, as soon as possible, say September 2015.” It’s to be based in a variety of premises throughout the town. All sorts of citizens will teach short courses with students being awarded certificates of attendance. The model is based on how Oxford and Cambridge started.

There is, of course, a fatal flaw in the plan. Even if famous universities did begin like that they were products of their time. It’s completely different today.

We already have an oversupply of universities. The percentage of the population going to universities has increased exponentially over the past 40 or 50 years. It’s not that people are any smarter now than they used to be. It’s just that standards have been dumbed down to fill the number of courses available. More people are getting higher than ever qualifications for completing more courses of dubious quality. That’s why we have so many graduates with no hope of finding employment related to their studies.

We don’t need more Mickey Mouse universities offering more Mickey Mouse degrees to the academically challenged. OK, so the whiff of elitism runs contrary to the zeitgeist of our time but if university education is to be meaningful it has to be elitist. By abandoning that principle we’ve allowed academic inflation to destroy the currency of degrees.

We need high standard universities; not ‘care-in-the community’ courses.

Dave Duggan suggests, “…a form of Steering Group that represents, in the main, people who have children coming to university entry age,” to oversee the new institution. How would that work?

Don’t we already have a two-tier university system? We have the selector universities attracting the brightest students and the recruiter universities advertising on TV to fill the other places available.

So, can you imagine Derry parents encouraging their young people not to try for a place at Oxford or Cambridge or Edinburgh or Trinity College Dublin or the National University of Ireland or wherever in favour of a short course run by volunteers in a vacant shop in Derry? It’s not going to happen.

The only thing wrong with our whinging for a proper university is that it isn’t loud enough.