What do we do now?
I am a fan of the actors Robert de Niro and Robin Williams. So when they both appeared in the same movie in 1990 I made sure to see it as soon as it opened. The movie is Awakenings. In summary, the plot revolves around a doctor (Williams) who discovers that a particular medication can ‘awaken’ patients who have become catatonic after contracting encephalitis. He succeeds in resuscitating a whole ward full of them (the first one being de Niro), and to reintroduce them to a life they had pretty much lost. However, after a while we discover that the effects of the medication are temporary, and one by one the patients return to their catatonic state. It’s a good movie, if you allow for some slightly over-the-top ham acting by de Niro and a somewhat awkward romantic sub-plot.
Right now it seems to me as if the plot of Awakenings could be some sort of parable on the higher education sector in Ireland. When I started my professional academic life in 1980, universities in Ireland were on the whole pretty lethargic, not because anyone was deliberately or negligently under-performing, but because the resources were not there for us to be anything else. We had old, not-fit-for-purpose buildings, an unfavourable staff-student ratio, and virtually no research performance by international standards. I suppose it would be fair to say that, given those constraints, there were some academics and groups who did perform amazingly well, but Irish higher education as a whole was not visible internationally. Then came the Celtic Tiger, a sudden surge in student numbers, serious research funding (initially kick-started by Chuck Feeny’s Atlantic Philanthropies), research councils and foundations. We are not yet amongst the top universities globally, but we are on the way up. I suspect that this year’s global rankings will see some further improvements in the standing of Irish universities.
But if I am right about the rankings, then enjoy it, because this may be the peak, and now we’re going down. For next year and beyond, everything may be against us. Public sector embargos and similar measures will reduce staff numbers and worsen staff-student ratios (which are already bad by international standards); research funding is being cut (and we have yet to see by how much). And these two metrics are perhaps those that most significantly influence world rankings. As the effects of these measures come into account we must anticipate a visible deterioration in our sector, not made any better by the creeping imposition of bureaucratic controls likely to militate against innovation and initiative. The ‘awakenings’ may come to an end as the medication is withdrawn.
Or maybe we need to decide now that we will not just sit back and let all this happen. Despite the hostile environment of the 1980s, in parts of the higher education sector this was also a time of innovation and enterprise. My own university, DCU, grew strongly over that period and was able to innovate effectively. Others did also. We need to find ways now of becoming less dependent on an increasingly unreliable state, by finding new revenues that will allow us to support our key priorities and maintain standards while we do so. We need to develop strategic goals that we can pursue successfully, particularly in cooperation with each other. We must not sit back and wait to be victims of the evolving circumstances.
The key to our continuing growth and success will be financial ingenuity. Without resources we can do very little. This means that we must make the best case we can for public funding, but we must also become more active in trying to influence the debate around fees, and we must also look at ways of harnessing our facilities and our skills to secure other income. It is worth a fight to ensure that we retain the international recognition and the excellence that we have so far secured and to build on that.
And of course if we success, we can start planning the movie. I was thinking that Brad Pitt might be suited for my part. And I’m sure we can find a part for Angelina.Explore posts in the same categories: higher education, university comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.