Unloved universities?

An interesting – if, for some of us, depressing – feature of recent discussions on the funding of higher education has been the fact that there appear to be many people out there who, frankly, don’t think much of the universities. The Minister for Education and Science may be one of these people; he has launched, or rather he says he will launch, his ‘forensic audit’ of the sector, which in itself is a rather loaded term, suggesting that he suspects we do not make good use of our resources. But if he holds that view, he is certainly not alone. Widely held views include that universities are bad at managing their funds, allow systemic under-performance of staff, over-pay the academics (and in particular senior academics and officers), allow staff to avoid student contact, carry out too much research at the expense of teaching, fail to monitor quality adequately – and so on. This is backed up in media comment from time to time, as for example here. Because of all this, cutting university funding may be seen as justifiable.

Of course I would not suggest that all is perfect in the universities, but for anyone who spends any amount of time in any of them it would be hard to conclude that the above picture properly describes how they operate. I am not going to enter a defence of our institutions here (I may come back to that, however). Rather I am left to wonder why there really is nobody who offers a contrary view, apart from representatives of the sector itself (who of course may be taken to have a vested interest). For example, industry representatives in some contexts regularly affirm the importance of the Irish universities to our future, but absolutely no representative of the business community has come out to support the sector over the past weeks.

The answer probably lies with us. As institutions, we have I think not been good enough at making our case, and at explaining what we do and have done. We are not adequately and appropriately engaging in public debate, and too often we are wrong-footed by unfortunate stories of under-performance or questionable practice, stories which are not in themselves typical of what we do for society. University heads themselves, myself included, may need to think a little more also about how we appear in the public eye, and how good we are at representing the interests of our institutions, both in what we say and in what we do.

We have to conclude that, however well (as I would argue) we have been developing the sector in the interests of the nation, we have not been as effective as we need to be in articulating that and supporting our words with appropriate evidence. We need to think again, because if we do not have public support we cannot succeed as universities, and if we don’t succeed Ireland will have a much smaller chance of getting out of its current economic difficulties and returning to growth and prosperity.

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3 Comments on “Unloved universities?”

  1. Ellie Clewlow Says:

    Alberto Amaral spoke on this subject at the Institute of Educaion in London earlier this year (see http://intersectingsets.wordpress.com/2008/06/05/managing-quality-enhancement/). He contrasted the success of the US universities in this regard with the loss of trust between universities and wider society that was more evident in the UK and Europe.

    One complicating factor when this same issue has been debated in England is the extent to which it is feasible to gain and consistently present a consensus within ‘the sector’ as to the functions and contributions of higher education and universities – in a sector that has diversified considerably in the last fifty years.

  2. Jilly Says:

    I’m always mystified by these accusations of academic lack of ‘availability’ to students, given that I and all of my colleagues feel constantly beseiged by student contact (I don’t mean that we don’t want to have contact with students, but some days seem to just disappear in the face of knocks on the office door). But then it occurs to me why this mismatch of perception happens: it’s about lecturer/student ratios. I understand that Irish universities have some of the worst staffing ratios in Europe: one of the results of this is that students feel they can’t get near us, whilst we often feel overwhelmed by trying to deal with student contact. THIS is an issue which deserves more public discussion, I think. It was all very well massively expanding university education in this country, but we did it on a very flimsy shoe-string, and dreadful staff/student ratios are one of the prices we’re paying.

  3. quovadis Says:

    I also think what’s missing is accountability to students. As an independent career coach working with students, I find it very time consuming to find out the quality of courses. e.g student satisfaction, lecturer performance, course materials, success rates etc.
    Unlike England there is no independent rating of colleges. See for example http://www.unistats.co.uk/
    There are no easily available statistics on drop out/success rates from courses.

    Also we have too many colleges focusing on specific areas which are not really value add. For example do we really need 10 different colleges doing accounting research when most of the time we follow international or English accounting standards?
    The role of the IT’s versus Uni’s needs to be clarified.
    Also good researchers do not always make good teachers, and colleges don’t appear to act quick enough to deal with poor performers. (I’ve no stats to back this up, but there’s no stats to disprove it either!)

    Providing some hard information about performance would help dispel some of the myths and demonstrate colleges are doing a good job.

    And yes I did do lecturing at 3rd level so do appreciate just how hard it is.
    I enjoy the blog, nice to see a senior academic being so accessible.

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