Irish universities and a tale of efficiency
There is, I think, a growing sense of alarm in Irish higher education that when the 2010 global university rankings are compiled, the position of Irish institutions may be found to have slipped; or if not in 2010, then certainly in the following years. As the available funding declines, various metrics commonly used to determine rankings will begin to work against us, from higher student-staff ratios to lower research funding and outputs. We are, as I have pointed out before, talking the language of education and innovation, but we are not paying the bills.
However, if it’s any comfort, we are right up there in another league table: the table of the most ‘efficient’ universities. A little while ago the European Commission published a Study on the efficiency and effectiveness of public spending on tertiary education. In this Ireland was found to have the 5th most efficient university sector in Europe, coming behind the UK, Japan, the Netherlands and Finland, but ahead of such countries as Germany, Belgium, France, Finland and the United States. It must be pointed out that the most recent year in the study was 2005, and given all the cuts we have probably become massively more ‘efficient’ still. In essence the table measures the funding and other revenues received by universities, and then looks at the various outputs achieved on the back of that funding. Ireland does well, and this has been noted in the media.
But what does this mean? Is it being suggested that the silver bullet of higher education is high quality education and research funded by very little? Is the process of pushing through ‘efficiencies’ a limitless one? In other words, can further cuts be applied incrementally more or less for ever without compromising quality? I remember vividly the then UK government’s policy in the early 1990s of applying an annual ‘efficiency gain’ to university budgets, meaning an annual reduction in the core grant. It did not take too long before serious questions began to be raised as to whether the universities could maintain quality in such circumstances.
At one level it is good that we are doing more with less. Maximising performance is always great. But efficiency is not a strategy. It is merely a form of good management, and there isn’t really any credible route to better results via less money. The ultimate efficiency, if this policy were extended logically, would be to give up teaching and to hand out degree parchments on the day the students first register. But I doubt that would impress the world; and that’s whom we have to impress.Explore posts in the same categories: higher education comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.