Miscreant universities

I have a terrible, terrible confession to make: I began my professional life as a banker. There, I have been courageous enough to say it. Admitting to being a banker seems these days to be akin to confessing to a life as a drug dealer or a time share salesman. Right now it seems likely that, having made this confession, I shall be shunned by all right-thinking people. In my defence I can say that I abandoned that path of roguery in the 1970s, so it is all so terribly long ago; and I never claimed, nor did I receive, any bonus while I pursued that particular life.

In any case it hardly matters, because there are days when I cannot help feeling that the profession I chose instead has turned out to be equally shady – I became an academic. Today I bought three Sunday newspapers – two Irish and one British – and each one of them has articles and news items that suggest universities are full of under-performing and over-paid layabouts; and that as institutions they pursue completely useless activities that are a drain on the taxpayer.

One particular bit of commentary that caught my eye was in the Sunday Independent, in an article by the economics editor of the radio station Newstalk 106 Marc Coleman. The article generally was about cronyism in government and the public sector. And thrown into the mix, à propos of nothing as far as I could see, was the following:

Will universities be forced to publish accounts? Will incompetent lecturers be sacked, as incompetent bankers have been? Will recalcitrant ones be forced to do what they’re paid for, ie, lecture their students? Will the Government stop wasting money on useless third-level research and divert the saved funds to creating more primary-school teaching posts?

This is extraordinary stuff, and full of ill-informed innuendo. As far as I am aware, all universities do publish their accounts. Certainly DCU does. It is, I agree, very hard to sack a lecturer, and in many ways it should be, not least because it is necessary to maintain protection of academic freedom; but all universities now have performance management systems. Will lecturers be forced to teach students? They do teach students, and I have hardly ever come across one who refuses (and in those very rare cases where that might happen, we have acted). Useless third level research? As the IDA has recently confirmed, third level research is what is now mainly attracting foreign direct investment; almost every significant recent investment has been in some way linked to research or R&D.

I suspect that the last paragraph sounds defensive. But unless we understand as a country that the excellence of our universities is what will, perhaps more than any other single item, determine our way out of the recession, we are doomed to go back to national mediocrity.

I don’t doubt at all that there are still many things that need to change and many improvements that need to be made in our university sector. But to suggest, as is so frequently done right now, that there is something fundamentally wrong with our third level sector is ludicrous. Except that it is dramatically under-funded, and that the means to produce some of the reforms still needed are denied to the institutions.

Of course universities must operate in a transparent and accountable manner. But that of itself won’t make them world class. And if Marc Coleman would like us to have an economy that warrants an economics editor at Newstalk 106, he might want to take a closer look at what universities really do.

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4 Comments on “Miscreant universities”

  1. Mark Dowling Says:

    I would wear the criticism of a publication which brought the nation “the Keane Edge” and the “03 Team” (among many other atrocities) as a garland.

  2. Iain Says:

    It is depressing though, how much the media in Ireland turn on the public sector whether it be the fat cats in universities or in the health service, or bad teachers, etc. In truth, of course, Ireland underfunds all these key areas and instead of focusing on the tens of thousands of school children crammed into large classes in woooden sheds/portakabins, etc, it seems easier to blame the teachers, snarl at lecturers and condemn the bureaucrats.

    What a pity that the country lacks such basic social solidarity. Indeed, it has been fascinating for me, a non-national, to see the extent to which Ireland plays up the ‘community’ and ‘society’ aspects of its self-image yet in reality seems to have a much deeper vein of individualism.

    Why should the public sector be the ‘bogeyman’? Perhaps we need a completely new social contract and a more participative public service? Perhaps more regional and effective local government, and an electoral system that doesn’t promote local ‘favours’, etc. Hmm, but then maybe i should keep quiet as an outsider lest I be treated with the opprobrium vented recently on the hapless German ambassador!

  3. Dan Sullivan Says:

    Wasn’t Marc Coleman one of the few economists who agreed with Bertie that the “Boom was getting Boomier”? Hardly someone with his brain in the game is he?

  4. ultan Says:

    It’s the Sunday Independent. Hardly a touch-stone of informed debate or a hotbed of intelligence or even common sense, is it? Spout enough reactionary guff you’ll be even be made Senator.

    I don’t think lecturers are shady. In fact it was a big disappointment to me that none of the “gross moral turpitude” I’d seen in “The History Man” was evident in the Arts Building of TCD when I was an undergrad. At least on the first floor. Perhaps I should have gone upstairs to French or Philosophy?

    Well done on your performance on Q&A tonight, btw.

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