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The University of Liverpool Podcast Colm Toibin is an award-winning Irish author, playwright and journalist, and the newly-installed Chancellor of the University of Liverpool. He is the author of eleven novels, including Brooklyn, the Costa Novel of the Year in 2009 that was adapted into an Academy Award nominated and BAFTA winning film in 2015.
Colm appeared on the University of Liverpool Podcast to discuss how he perceives the role of universities in society – and what they should hope to achieve in the coming years.

5 ways that universities contribute to society

  1. Developing the ability for nuanced understanding
    Against a turbulent backdrop in modern history, Colm believes universities can help provide the insight and capacity needed for citizens to best understand the world in which they live.

    “We need to understand the current trends going on,” he says. “We have to go beyond the headlines of the day and learn to read under them. In every area, from literary criticism, to science, to engineering. We need to be able analyse what’s happening.”

    He adds: “Part of what a university means, is that people leaving university will be better at interpreting things like that.”
  2. Restoring society’s pride in intelligence
    By encouraging pride in intelligence, universities inspire both students and faculty alike. It is a feeling that Colm believes universities should treasure.

    Reflecting on his studies at University College Dublin, he recalls “finding moments of pure clarity in a classroom, as somebody with a brilliant mind actually began to disentangle something that you couldn’t have imagined before”.

    “The question of being as intelligent as possible remains at the very centre of the enterprise,” he says. “That’s really what inspires me and I think it inspires most of the people that I know who work as university teachers.”
  3. Opening doors around the world
    Online education will allow universities to reach increasingly remote communities around the world, says Colm. This, in turn, will spread knowledge further than ever before.

    “In so many countries, people are getting faster internet systems. Some might think that’s nothing much – it just helps them to get Netflix faster – but, actually, it will end up having an enormous power, because it will become a way for knowledge to spread and be disseminated, and for study to be made possible. We’re talking about something immensely important” he says.
  4. Creating citizens capable of thinking critically
    With the explosion of fake news and manipulated, unchecked online publishing, Colm suggests that universities may have to “become more vocal”.

    He says universities have a real role in developing the next generation of people, who can think independently and challenge beliefs. He says part of their role is to create educated citizens who have the tools to think critically about the information they are faced with, rather than standing out as champions and arbiters of what is true and what is not.

    “If we work with the idea that our job, before we do anything else, is to work with the students and offer the students a way of thinking… and approaching any material that comes their way for the rest of their lives, that will then matter enormously,” Colm states.
  5. Committing to transparency
    According to Colm, education has the unique ability to enable people to “become the best part of themselves” – but this can only be achieved by securing the support of the wider society.

    He says: “The way we work has to be open and measurable and transparent so, that politicians and people who vote in elections understand how essential it is for […] the future that there would be many more graduates.”

    Underpinning this is a fundamental belief that education can be a form of liberation that nourishes and enriches society, regardless of race, gender or sexuality. To achieve it, though, universities must be prepared to put themselves at the centre of public discourse, and to be held accountable for their performance.

    Says Colm, “we have to go on making this argument, not merely as an ideal or dream, but as something that is actually happening now. That is being done and worked out all the time in the classrooms of now.”

About this podcast

The University of Liverpool Podcast aims to bring listeners closer to some of the academic experts, authors and innovative thinkers from the University who, through their in-depth analyses, research and discoveries, are affecting positive change in the world today. Each episode features one or more of our academic experts discussing research in their specialist field. Subscribe to the University of Liverpool Podcast via iTunes, Tunein and Google Play Music (US and Canada only).

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