Posted tagged ‘Ireland’

Subverting Irish university autonomy

September 24, 2013

Over the past three or four years a significant change has been taking place in Irish higher education. Since the publication of the Hunt Report in 2011 (National Strategy for Higher Education), there has been a visible shift of public policy in the direction of a more centralised management of the system. The state now regards it as appropriate to set a national strategic purpose to be reflected in individual institutional plans, and also to manage what has become known as the higher education ‘landscape‘ – the latter being the configuration of the sector and the identity and management of the individual universities and colleges within it.

And now, with remarkably little public attention regarding the implications, the government has announced its intention of introducing in 2014 a new piece of legislation in the form of a Universities (Amendment) Bill, the purpose of which is declared to be ‘to give the Minister the power to require universities to comply with government guidelines on remuneration, allowances, pensions and staffing numbers in the University sector’.

The picture that is emerging from all this is an interesting one: the government and its agencies will set an overall strategic context for individual institutions, will determine in which institutional configuration they will operate, and will determine centrally their staffing and human resources policy. Someone may have arguments in favour of such a higher education policy, but it will have to be stated clearly that it is completely incompatible with any – even limited – understanding of university autonomy.

No major policy shift should be undertaken in any area without a clear understanding of how it will produce benefits; such an understanding does not exist in relation to current plans for Irish higher education. It is acknowledged throughout the world that autonomous universities perform much better and produce much greater benefits for their host countries. Ireland’s universities are now being directly threatened. There should, at the very least, be a vigorous debate, and the universities should be vocal in it.

Irish higher education: mind the funding gap

July 16, 2013

Towards the end of my time as President of Dublin City University, I calculated that over my ten-year term of office the funding received for educating each Irish and EU undergraduate student (the unit of resource) had, after allowing for inflation, decreased by around 40 per cent. With the exception of the student registration charge (which had by then become the ‘student contribution charge’), all funding came from the government. The actual amounts of funding had increased over the period, but this was because of a mixture of inflation and significantly increased student numbers; once you adjusted for that the picture was very different. Even during the affluent Celtic Tiger years the funding in real terms declined significantly.

When the credit crunch and the resulting recession began in 2008, it became clear very quickly that major funding cuts were about to hit the system. Some of this was absorbed through reductions in staff pay, but what was much more significant was the reduction in staff numbers, forced on the system through the notorious ‘employment control framework’. The continuing squeeze on budgets has in the meantime also led to other dramatic effects, with universities having to face impossible decisions regarding staffing, library and technology resources, and other such vital parts of the infrastructure.

Nobody doubts that recent Irish governments have had to take very difficult decisions, and it would have been unrealistic to suggest that higher education should (or could) escape that. But it must be remembered that Ireland’s ability to generate either inward investment or indigenous entrepreneurship increasingly depends on a successful university sector. This is now at risk. It would be foolish to think that a starved sector enjoying half of the per capita funding of other OECD countries could compete with them for investment or for skilled leaders.

The problem for Ireland is that very few people are making this point explicitly (although there are some exceptions, including Dick Ahlstrom’s recent piece in the Irish Times). Does anyone know, or say, how much funding a student must attract for that student to be able to receive a quality education? In England Oxford University suggested to the Browne review that it was £16,000. Perhaps more realistically, an American study recently argued that the minimum quality threshold lay at $15,000 per student – roughly €11,500. Ireland’s funding is now very far below that.

Ireland is facing a crisis on a number of fronts, but right now the asset stripping of higher education is creating an additional problem that may make an economic recovery both less likely and much less sustainable. And most alarming of all is that all this is happening with very little public noise, perhaps in part because the system has been distracted by a very doubtful new framework of restructuring. If I were still working in Ireland, I would be very afraid.

The Irish higher education ‘landscape’

January 17, 2013

As part of the process that will, we are told, produce a newly reconfigured Irish higher education system, the Higher Education Authority (HEA) has produced another document pointing further in the direction of where it would like the system to go. In this latest document, entitled Completing the Landscape Process for Irish Higher Education, the HEA sets out its intentions as follows.

‘System reconfiguration is aimed at creating a reduced number of higher education institutions of more significant scale and critical mass in the best interests of students. A key objective is to protect the distinctive roles and mission of universities and technological institutes within the Irish system while delivering the quality outcomes in teaching, research and engagement for students and stakeholders envisaged in the National Strategy.’

In fairness to the HEA, its objectives have been stated repeatedly in previous documents and follow a clearly discernible path. It wants fewer higher education institutions; and in particular it wants mergers amongst the institutes of technology, the absorption of teacher training colleges into universities, and a much higher level of specialisation in all institutions including universities. It believes that this will remove or lessen inefficiencies and produce what it calls ‘scale’, or critical mass. It also wants regional clustering, so that institutions in the same general area (though ‘area’ is understood in a somewhat elastic way, as it seems for example to include the entire west coast of Ireland) form part of a coherent structure. It also wants the development of a centralised national strategy that will inform individual institutional direction. All of this is to lead to what the document describes as a ‘co-ordinated and consolidated higher education system’.

The objectives being pursued here have become part of the public narrative of higher education in Ireland, and are repeated by officials and politicians in a manner to suggest that they are obviously appropriate. But whether they really are appropriate, and certainly whether they are necessary, has not ever really been established through the presentation of anything that might count as evidence. Rather, a set of largely unproven assumptions – with some assumptions that have been shown to be highly questionable if not simply wrong, such as that of ‘scale’ – have taken on iconic status. They are driving policy making, and are threatening to create a new layer of bureaucratic control. They are set to replace the traditional principle of institutional autonomy, on the again quite unproven assertion that this no longer serves the interests of Irish higher education or society.

It would be unfair to suggest that all these plans are wrong. Coordinating institutional objectives with national priorities is potentially useful. Encouraging strategic collaboration is right. But the picture emerging here goes beyond that, and reveals a higher education ‘system’ that is structured to fit a centralised bureaucratic model.

The HEA has overall been a good friend of the higher education sector, but it has allowed itself to be persuaded that something is wrong where there are no real signs of anything untoward. In consequence attention that could usefully be directed to some much more obviously beneficial reform, particularly given the changing pedagogical and demographic trends of recent years, is now being focused on a structural reconfiguration that hardly seems called for and that could actually undermine innovation and creativity within the sector.

Probably this path is now set, and there are few signs that there is any resistance from the institutions themselves. I still doubt it is the right path, however. Furthermore, the journey down this path is beginning just as other countries, for example Germany, are moving in the opposite direction, as they have come to realise the importance of university autonomy. It’s a strange world.

Coming to grips – or not – with university autonomy

November 20, 2012

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.

Cruel principles?

November 15, 2012

Some readers commenting on my last post drew attention to the appalling news just in from Ireland, of the death of a woman in a Galway hospital, where she had been taken as she was experiencing a miscarriage. Medical staff, apparently, were unwilling to terminate her pregnancy even though the foetus was inevitably dying and the delay in forcing the delivery was placing the mother in jeopardy; in the event both mother and baby died. According to the report in the Irish Times, the patient, Ms Savita Halappanavar, was told that no termination could take place while there was still a foetal heartbeat because ‘this is a Catholic country’.

I have never believed that abortion is simply a human rights issue; it seems to me to be far more complex. But nonetheless what appears to have happened here is outrageous and horrible. As far as I know we have not heard yet from the hospital, so we don’t know for sure what the medical staff believed they were doing; nor have they confirmed that Ms Halappanavar was told what I have quoted above. But if it is all true, then so-called ‘pro life’ principles, which in any case seem often to have a curiously limited view of ‘life’ and of quality of life and which may be more about opposition to social liberalisation, are being conscripted into a campaign that in cases such as this just seems cruel.

One must absolutely accept that doctors and nurses sometimes have horrifyingly difficult decisions to take in extreme medical cases. But pro-life groups, and those who  allow themselves to be bullied by such groups into enacting or enforcing extreme laws, need to be reminded that life is complex, not simple, and that to elevate abstract principles above people is to abandon the values that make us civilised. It is time to ensure that whatever may have happened in Galway cannot happen again.

A vision of Ireland at the crossroads?

November 13, 2012

I have now lived outside Ireland for the best part of two years. However, I am a frequent visitor and I keep up with things as best I can; and as I do so I am becoming increasingly intrigued by the direction of the national conversation. There appears to be a near consensus, in some circles at least, that the ‘Celtic Tiger’ years were all one big mistake and that the country should never have left the spirit of a previous era; though I am not always sure which previous era might be held up as a model.

Among those leading the discussion is Ireland’s President, Michael D. Higgins. The President has been forthright in rejecting the assumptions of the Celtic Tiger era, and in particular in rejecting the primacy of markets in economic affairs. His analysis has been interesting. In his lecture at the London School of Economics in February this year the President suggested that Ireland’s recent economic boom was a failure because ‘leaders and people had all but lost connection with the cultural and political elements of national revival’. What they pursued was the intellectual brainchild, he felt, of writers such as Friedrich von Hayek who promoted a ‘single hegemonic version of the connection between markets, economic policy, and life itself.’ This led to ‘extreme individualism’ supported by ‘unregulated markets’. A little later, in April of this year, the President spoke about ‘the folly of overweening material ambition’.

Pursuing this particular reference, I was a little struck that nobody appeared to have picked up the similarity of tone to that of a previous Irish President. In 1943 Eamon de Valera (admittedly when he was Taoiseach and therefore before he became President), made a speech mainly remembered for a reference he did not actually make (his alleged but never expressed yearning for ‘comely maidens dancing at the crossroads’). However he did say:

‘The Ireland which we would desire of would be the home of a people who valued material wealth only as the basis of a right living, of a people who were satisfied with frugal comfort and devoted their leisure to the things of the soul.’

At a recent gathering of psychologists Ireland’s current dissatisfaction with itself was attributed by one speaker to a ‘narcissistic system’ based on its colonial past, and which caused people to have a negative view of themselves and of the nation. What she was referring to was the country’s sense of flawed nationhood as it accepted responsibility for what went wrong in the national finances, including the problems caused by reckless banking behaviour. The implication was that this acceptance of responsibility, by political leaders at least, was part of a distorted self-analysis and an obsessive desire to please others (the ‘others’ here being the IMF and the European Union).

What picture of an ideal Ireland can we discern from all this? An insecure country that wants to reject its recent past? A country that is keen to renounce material possessions and return to a rural frugality? A country that thinks that what happened to the Irish economy was part of some aberration in the national destiny?

No country and no society can turn the clock back. For those who may remember, say, the 1950s and 1960s, and for those who have just read about those decades, there should be some hesitation before concluding that those were better days. Does Ireland want women back into the home, could it accept now the lack of social and physical mobility, or large-scale emigration? Not to mention child abuse.

Nobody can doubt that the recent past was not all that it should have been. But the way forward is forward. The last two decades brought Ireland a much greater liberal acceptance of human rights, greater access to scientific and technological progress, much better national infrastructure, a better awareness of the potential for global communication and interaction. There was much more good than there was bad. Those who believe that Ireland needs to reject all of its recent history should, really, think again.

Irish higher education and the 2012 Budget

December 6, 2011

Throughout my time as President of Dublin City University the annual statement of public expenditure – the so-called Book of Estimates – was a nail biting event. It was also an odd one, because this was how I found out, nearly three months into the financial year, what allocation I could expect from the government for that year. It was never a process that made much sense.

Anyway, here I am in Scotland, but there goes the process again back in Ireland: yesterday the government announced, as the first stage in the annual Budget dance, what the public expenditure estimates are to be for the coming year; though on this occasion it has also announced what sort of thing will happen in the two years to follow. And overall it is not a pretty picture for the universities.

Last year the government allocated €1,177,032,000 to the sector. For 2012 the allocation is €1,119,694,000, which represents a cut of 5 per cent. This is a larger cut than that applying to education overall, at 3 per cent. The government has also announced that there will be further (albeit smaller) cuts in the two subsequent years.

The government has also declared that the ‘student contribution charge’ will go up by €250, but this will not come anywhere near compensating for the funding cut.

Irish higher education is already dangerously under-funded. Every survey conducted has found the same thing: that substantial additional money is needed to allow Irish universities to compete on an international stage. We have now been told that there will be continuing cuts over the coming three years. It has to be emphasized that this is not an environment in which Irish higher education can carry out the tasks necessary for economic and social revival. To avoid a major collapse in morale, the government needs to declare now how it intends to handle higher education through the rest of this decade, and how it will enable the sector to meet expectations made of it. Otherwise Ireland will slip into a third world higher education system by stealth. There is very little time.

Postgraduate woes

November 15, 2011

When I began my career as a university lecturer, the student body in my institution was overwhelmingly undergraduate. Taught postgraduate courses were quite rare and generally had small numbers, and in Ireland at least there were very few doctoral research students. By the time I left Irish higher education earlier this year to take up my current post in Scotland, the real growth in universities was in postgraduate studies. In addition, it had become government policy – through the promotion of what has become known as the ‘fourth level‘ – to encourage and fund students wanting to pursue a higher degree. This was so not least because of the now common assumption that an increasing number of high value jobs require postgraduate qualifications.

Now, however, the Irish government has apparently decided to discontinue public funding for postgraduate students. While it is understandable that the government must try to find ways of containing the cost of higher education, it is very hard to see how it makes sense to introduce cuts at the level which government policy has consistently prioritized. Or rather, if there is to be a change of policy of such a radical nature, it would seem right to subject that to some discussion and analysis before implementing it. Certainly if Ireland now acquires a reputation of being inhospitable to postgraduate studies and research it will greatly damage standing of the country and compromise foreign direct investment in knowledge-intensive industries. It would not be wise to implement this decision.

Television and nation building

October 18, 2011

Travelling between Ireland and Scotland recently. I was struck by one aspect of Irish life that may not, or at least not yet, be part of the Scottish experience in the same way: there is a shared conversation that accompanies Irish national life and that reaches into the community; and its fuel is television. Apart from the ongoing soul searching about the recession, national insolvency and the attempted economic comeback, the national conversation involves analysis of the current presidential campaign. This is not because the campaign has caught the public imagination; if anything, the conversation is often about how the candidates fall short. But the campaign is being fought over the airwaves, and the various live debates have been a major talking point. It helps that one or two candidates seem to be self-destructing in public, but generally the coming election is a shared experience of the national community, made possible because it is being broadcast to the country as it unfolds.

In fact, the shared experience of television is part of Ireland’s recent history. Almost everyone has some reference point, whether that is the iconic Late Late Show, or the political magazine programmes over the years such as Today Tonight and Prime Time, special series such as that on Charles Haughey, or just the Nine O’Clock news. Even as hundreds of channels became available through cable or satellite, the main national channels (and RTÉ in particular) stayed there as the focus of national conversation. This shaped the country’s identity: who can deny that Gay Byrne’s Late Late made modern Ireland what it is much more than any politician’s manifesto?

Over here in what is now my home in Scotland there is also something of a national conversation, but it is not securely anchored in the same way. Interestingly the key topic of that conversation is nation building, in the setting of the anticipated referendum on independence. But even as this topic is developed, it lacks the compelling support of national broadcasting, lacking in part because the broadcast media are part of a wider United Kingdom heritage. The BBC has a good bit of Scotland-specific programming, but is interspersed between the dominant shared British output. The same is true of STV, which is still on the whole the Scottish arm of the UK’s ITV. The iconic programmes are mostly British. Of course the national debate about Scotland’s future gets along fine anyway, but I do miss the immediate and compelling nature of the  national conversation I am used to in Ireland. I suspect that Scotland needs this also to secure its identity. Perhaps the time has come to consider a genuinely Scottish television station, to share the airwaves with the undoubtedly excellent BBC and other broadcasters.

Choosing a president

September 19, 2011

Readers outside Ireland may not be particularly aware that an Irish presidential election campaign is under way; on the other hand, hardly anyone in the world will be unaware of the US presidential election to be held next year.

Let’s stick with Ireland for a moment. The country’s formerly dominant (but now devastated) party Fianna Fail is currently affected by internal convulsions, caused by the desire of one Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú to be a candidate for the post. I hope it will not sound disrespectful to him if I say that, outside the traditional music community, he is not a household name.

A growing consensus is that none of the candidates who are in the ring, with the exception of Senator David Norris (whose nomination is not secure), would excite the general population. This is causing people to wonder whether the post is actually a necessary one for the country at all; which is a shame, given the equally widespread consensus that the present incumbent, Mary McAleese, has performed her tasks with great distinction. One reason for the disaffection may be related to the nomination process, designed to give the political parties a gatekeeper role.

The gatekeeper function belongs even more emphatically to the two major political parties in the United States, but in a much more complex process. Each party’s committed voters determine the choice of the candidate, and because this is so the candidates have to appeal to the core supporters, which in the case of the Republicans in particular means that an ambitious candidate needs to place him or herself on the right wing; before shifting rapidly to the centre when it comes to the actual election.

It seems to me that the credibility and acceptability of a presidency depends on the credibility and acceptability of the electoral process. A key element in this is how candidates emerge and are chosen. Right now this is not ideal in either Ireland or the United States. This is an aspect of democracy that needs urgent attention. The paradox is that a good process must ensure that candidates who stimulate thenpublic interest are able to secure a nomination, while those whose credentials are less obvious, like the good Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú, are not necessarily hurried into the ring. It’s not an easy process.


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