Posted tagged ‘Irish universities’

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.

How many universities should we have?

January 24, 2010

I see that Peter Sutherland has entered the debate, such as it is, on how many universities would be just right for Ireland. According to a report in Saturday’s Irish Times, he told a meeting of the Royal Irish Academy that ‘Ireland cannot afford to keep seven universities at world-class research, education and training levels.’ He thus joins the chorus of voices who have made similar claims, including the government in the ‘Smart Economy‘ paper issued in December 2008.

As long term readers of this blog (bless you) will know, we’ve discussed this subject previously. There is in fact very little empirical evidence to support the contention that any particular number, large or small, of universities is right for any particular country. There is some evidence, as it happens, that maintaining high levels of quality is easier in smaller universities than in large ones, and in fact very few (if any) of the world’s largest universities appear in the global rankings.

The other disadvantage of assertions about the allegedly excessive number of Irish universities is that they take the focus away from something that does matter, how the various universities interact with each other. Suggesting that universities might have to merge or be closed makes them defensive and suspicious, just as they should be opening up to closer collaboration with others. So the best thing we can do is probably to ignore such calls (and hope that others do, too) and get on with the agenda of strategic collaboration.


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