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A history lesson for QUB vice-chancellor Patrick Johnston

Editor's Viewpoint

Published 01/06/2016

Professor Patrick Johnston in his office
Professor Patrick Johnston in his office

As vice-chancellor of a university that suffered a 24% cut in State funding between 2010 and 2014 and lost another £8m last year, Patrick Johnston faced hard choices that resulted in the loss of 240 jobs and 1,000 student places and the reshaping of the courses on offer.

In today's harsh economic climate, it is tempting to concentrate on those departments and courses that can attract the most income from research grants. But that cannot come at the expense of providing a rounded experience, both academic and non-academic, for those who study at Queen's University.

So it is little wonder that his comment in an interview in this newspaper that society does not need a 21-year-old graduate in sixth century history has been viewed as both a slur on his own university's history department, and a failure to grasp what third level education is supposed to be about.

Society is littered with influential history graduates, most notably politicians such as Gordon Brown, Sir Chris Patten and Douglas Hurd, writers such as Salman Rushdie and Alan Bennett, and lawyers such as Michael Mansfield.

Sir Howard Stringer is head of the Sony Corporation, and the late Sir Roland Smith was a director of the Bank of England, proving that history is no barrier to progress in the worlds of commerce and finance.

Our understanding of Ireland's complex past has been enormously improved by the work of people such as Paul Bew, from Queen's history department, and Jonathan Bardon, who graduated in history from Trinity but also studied education at Queen's.

University life cannot simply be a gateway to the high-earning professions such as law or medicine, or the world of business and economics. Students go there to learn about life as well as their chosen subject.

For many, it is their first time away from home and they have to make all kinds of decisions for themselves. They need to be exposed to subjects that challenge them, that inspire them to think about society in general and that improve their critical faculties - all attributes which can make them the leaders of society that Mr Johnston so earnestly desires.

It is often said that the best reason to study history is to learn from past mistakes and to avoid repeating them. Having had to apologise for his gaffe, Mr Johnston may consider that that remark has some resonance for him.

Belfast Telegraph

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