Coming to grips – or not – with university autonomy

When I undertook the task in 2011 of chairing the review of higher education governance in Scotland (the report can be read here), one of the recurring themes in submissions made to us was the imperative of university autonomy. It was often remarked that the world’s top universities are all highly autonomous, and conversely that highly controlled and directed systems of higher education tend not to feature much in global rankings. This explains, for example, why at least until now German universities have generally not received much international recognition.

However, it became very clear to me that ‘autonomy’ meant different things to different people. For some, it was the ability of universities to maintain the integrity of their decision-making structures in the face of government intervention. To others, it was about the freedom of managerial action. To others again it was all about intellectual freedom.

This difficulty in nailing down autonomy was not a new problem to me. In 2010, just before my term of office as President of Dublin City University came to an end, I was present at a meeting at which Irish government officials resisted the idea that university autonomy was about the freedom of individual institutions to decide their own strategy. To them, autonomy was about the freedom of universities to choose the means by which to implement government strategy. When I put it to them that autonomy could only be meaningful if universities could decide their own strategic direction, I was told that such a view had not occurred to them.

On the other hand of course, where public money is used to fund higher education, it is not unnatural for the government to expect certain outcomes. The current focus in Scotland on delivering better access to higher education for the disadvantaged (which universities support) is an example.

So where is the line to be drawn? Probably not where it is currently being sketched into the picture in Ireland. Amongst the more worrying developments there is the now published report by the so-called ‘International Expert Panel’ on A Proposed Reconfiguration of the Irish System of Higher Education. This report has come up with what it calls ‘an optimum configuration of the system’, consisting of ‘a small number of large, fit for purpose autonomous institutions with the critical mass necessary to determine achievable and flexible missions.’ Not visibly attaching much meaning to the word ‘autonomous’, the panel suggests that this outcome cannot be achieved by voluntary means and must be forced on the system. Leaving aside entirely the very doubtful proposition that larger (‘critical mass’) institutions are likely to gain more global recognition (when Caltech, the world’s number 1 university, would, if placed in Ireland, be the smallest institution in the system), it is notable that the panel attached no significance to the desirability of strategic autonomy.

The Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairi Quinn TD, has indicated he is not in favour of these recommendations. But then again, the government has just issued a new Bill – the Universities (Amendment) Bill 2012 – which, according to an analysis by Brian Lucey in the Irish Times, will allow the Minister to extend government control over payments and salaries within universities. While restraint in payments made by universities to senior staff would undoubtedly have popular support, allowing governments to control this centrally tends, as the horrible Employment Control Framework has demonstrated in Ireland, to stifle initiative and undermine strategy.

University autonomy must be used wisely by the institutions, and must not undermine public confidence in their decision-making. But on the other hand, subjecting universities to central control is not the right response. Governments need to engage in constructive dialogue with higher education to determine how public priorities can be supported within a framework of accountable autonomy. There is no worthwhile alternative. A Soviet model of higher education is not the way forward.

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10 Comments on “Coming to grips – or not – with university autonomy”

  1. V.H Says:

    I’ll make two points. Since the universities are autonomous entities they have the ability to say no. They don’t have to take the governments dosh. They can decide to be fee paying.
    2nd. By their nature civil services will draw external power under its umbrella. But a CS in the GB model as is in place in Ireland and Scotland will do it with more intent than most. Benignly this is called centralization. But in France where this occurred in spades we had relatively powerful local government. To get under its skin you have to ask what was it designed to halt and that was the independent fifes that landowners held which could create havoc. So, when the CS hear independent voices mentioning autonomy it hears danger in its collective ear.
    I think there is only two ways to go. Either you enter into the spirit of the CS and thrash them at their own game from within. Or, you cut yourself off entirely. This in/out on/off neither fish nor fowl not good red herring is just dissipating vast amounts of useful energy.
    And who cares about global rankings. It would seem that Germany is doing quite OK ta ever so.

  2. SteveB Says:

    For a small country Ireland has too many IT’s in particular and when money is tight they are going to be rationalised like it or not.
    Many are already in the process of doing so, or at least talking about doing so. Whether that will brings costs down or improve the academic performance of Ireland’s Institutions internally or internationally is another matter.
    Change rarely comes from within and sometimes it has to be imposed by those with fewer vested interests.

    Payments and salaries within certain universities for those at the top seem to have been allowed, in the past at least, to forge ahead almost unchecked. Is that a shining example of their cherished autonomy?

    Huge virtually untapped market for English students with Irish parents to study in Ireland to avoid the insane £9,000 England fees. I see little or no marketing drive from Irish Institutions to tempt these students back home to study. Far too much focus on grandiose plans and buildings.

    Cloud Cuckoo land to just go along as if the Celtic Tigers still roars, those days are long gone.

    • Mark Says:

      But surely there is no current profit on the fees currently charged in Ireland – I thought that what the students pay is less than half what their education costs? To bring in UK students at current fee rates would be to subsidize the education of UK nationals at a cost to the Irish taxpayer. A nice international gesture, but not a source of new funds to the system. It only makes financial sense to recruit UK students at fees approaching what is charged in the UK anyway.

      A second point is that the universities are bursting with students; the underfunding is not due to a lack of students attending. The arrival of more students is driving particular inefficiencies, e.g., repetition of practical classes and lectures. Funnily enough, the sort of thing that needs new building in terms of larger lecture theatres and labs.

  3. Jill Clarke Says:

    Your blog has led me to read of the situation here in Australia. The argument is the same here about autonomy and what it means.
    Being at heart a social democracy, Australia’s educational system, whether the actual institution itself is classed private or state, is intricately tied by funding from both state and federal governments. Once in University the students are fee paying but the institutions are still reliant on government funding to survive.

    So autonomy is not viable financially but they are part of the process of educational development and are part of the overall dialogue and development of education. The university’s held their own in a change in the schooling system to outcomes based education by still requiring a more quantifiable result for entrance, so in some ways they hold an autonomy of educational process.

    Interesting i am now inspired to do more research

  4. Anna Notaro Says:

    If one were to consider the history of universities from the XIII century onwards, the feudal institution, the Humboldt model of the research university of the XIX century and the one which emerged after the second world war one would have to conclude that striking the proper balance between universities and governments, between the autonomy and accountability is nothing new. The task is particularly difficult at times of economic crisis, see the 1970s and the current ones, also one should not dismiss the role that globalization plays in the matter by adding pressure in a competitive HE world market. So what are university to do, to ‘come to grips’ with the issue of autonomy? For a start it might be useful not to address it in isolation from other related issues or on the basis of a few institutions only, a strategic wide alliance of universities might have a better chance at political lobbying and advocacy and at influencing government legislation than the current fragmented situation where particular groups (see for example the Russell group in UK) lobby for interests suited to their cause. But political lobbying is not enough, the proper balance of autonomy and governance should come about through strong legislation which in effect entrenches university autonomy. In this sense reviews of higher education governance, as the one carried out in Scotland by the writer of this blog are certainly steps in the right direction, one would hope that its recommendations, as controversial as some might be, are taken in serious consideration by the ‘whole’ university community in Scotland, aptly modified and implemented before too long, watering them down would not only nullify the whole exercise but miss a great opportunity.
    In conclusion I would argue that if universities have been such durable institutions in history this is due exactly to their capacity to adapt by creating the unique combination of autonomy and decentralization proper for their time, surely such capacity to manage change cannot fail today’s university leaders and governments alike.

  5. James Fryar Says:

    Government A: We’ll decentralise power and give greater authority at a local level. We’ll let universities, hospitals, councils, police forces etc decide their own priorities. This reduces central bureaucracy and ensures the taxpayers’ money is spent on issues relevant to the local community, provides a competitive environment and fosters new ideas and thinking. Vote for us.

    Government B, five years later: We want to centralise power and ensure authority passes from the top-down. This ensures the taxpayer is getting value for money, that national priorites are universally adopted, and that spending is controlled. We can set benchmarks for performance against which every council, hospital, university, and police force will be measured on a national level, produce statistics that will be publicly available for comparison. Vote for us.

    And so the cycle will continue until our politicians actually manage to think outside the box …

  6. Mark Says:

    On the subject of autonomy, I am surprised that there has not been more comment on the Van Vught report. Is it being ignored already?

    The report is strident in a desire for mergers, but presents no case at all to support the analysis and chosen clusters. The best inference that can be drawn is that a good manager will be able to sack staff in a TCD-UCD merger (or similar) to free up resources to invest in new/target areas. There is no in-depth analysis of student populations, points, complementarily of research, geographical balance of infrastructure, any duplication of provision etc. presented. The international experience of university mergers suggest that they cost money rather than save it and a clear vision of the reasons for merger is needed. The recommendations of the Van Vught report do not establish an economic or indeed any other case for the large-scale disruption of mergers.

    I note that the defence of the report, when it was first leaked, referred not to a rational argument, rather to the credentials of the panel. Well the Brazilian football team have great football credentials; it doesn’t mean they can’t have a bad game. The HEA needs to do better than an appeal to credentials to justify the approach they suggest.

    • Andrew Says:

      Yes, the Van Vught report seems decidedly thin on pesky things like evidence. I think this is clearly illustrated by the proposed merging of NUIM-DCU and DkIT – what was that supposed to achieve? Whatever about NUIM and DCU, what would throwing in a random IT serve – is it all about getting student numbers above a certain, magically determined threshold? Someone better warn Caltech, MIT, Harvard etc that they better start this merger thing too before they get left behind.

  7. Rachel Carey Says:

    Well the post certainly makes you think. I don’t really know very much about the subject of autonomy in universities, but you have interested me to find out more…. Thanks

  8. Eduard Du Courseau Says:

    Autonomy would work if the educational landscape in Ireland was a bit more dynamic and competitive as in the USA. As it is, there are a number of poor performing institutes with a fairly lackadaisical culture and a parasitical cadre of pseudo academics who have made scant efforts to grow academically.
    There’s also little appetite for change, i.e. it’s a risk-averse system which needs a shake up. Why are poor performing and loss-making departments allowed to survive? Why are academics all on pretty much the same pay scale? Why is it so hard for students to meet the academics and really get to know them?
    Autonomy, as Ferdinand rightly puts it, is in the eye of the beholder, but without an entrepreneurial culture, there is a risk that unless it’s reined in, the general feeling of complacency will worsen I’m afraid.


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