Let us be guided by evidence

On Marian Finucane’s RTE radio show this Sunday morning there was a discussion about university tuition fees and related matters, and as part of that there was an intriguing contribution by Dr Sean Barrett of Trinity College Dublin. He argued in essence that universities in Ireland are over-funded. In support of these thesis he suggested that current funding per student stands at €13,300, but that for what he called ‘chalk and talk’ subjects such as his own (Economics) the actual cost per student is €1,100.  These figures were taken at face value by the other guests on the show.

First, the figure of €13,300 is not a meaningful one. I presume that Dr Barrett arrived at it by dividing the total recurrent grant and fee income by the total student numbers. But that would be a misleading figure,as it takes in excessively expensive programmes such as medicine and pharmacy, as well as the overseas student fee. In the meantime his suggested cost per student of €1,100 (he also mentioned 4c per student per lecture, by the way) is interesting. I don’t know what he thinks constitutes the cost, but presumably from the figure he is looking at marginal costs only, so he is discounting the cost of providing a building, equipping it, heating it, cleaning it, repairing it, providing security for it, and so forth. I imagine he is talking about academic staffing costs only. Trinity College has around 15,000 students, so he believes that the cost of the College’s educational programmes is (or should be) €16.5 million. I think that may buy him around 200 members of academic staff. In fact, Trinity has over 800. So he is suggesting that the College can safely cut its staff numbers by 75 per cent, or if you like, worsen the student-staff ratio by 400 per cent. In short, the point being made on the show had absolutely no merit on a factual basis. The implication that Dr Barrett was trying to advance – that the bulk of the money was being wasted on bureaucracy and unnecessary strategy planning – has in fact no evidence to back it.

My reason for mentioning this is not to be unduly critical of Sean Barrett, who has a strong record as an economist willing to raise difficult issues, and who moreover has an excellent record of providing support for students. But it occurs to me that we are in danger of taking all sorts of policy decisions on higher education in Ireland based, at best, on anecdotal evidence or calculations made on the backs of envelopes. Or to put it another way, using evidence as a basis for decision-making seems not to be in fashion. I have lost count of the number of times senior politicians have said that they have ‘evidence’ of various shortcomings in universities, only to find that this evidence consists of complaints they have come across in their postbags. Such complaints should of course be taken seriously, but they are not ‘evidence’ of anything. We need to overcome the temptation to use hear-say and anecdotal stories as a good basis for policy formulation, or even for establishing policy formulation reviews.

The same is true of unproven assertions. In the same programme Sean Barrett stated, as a fact, that Science Foundation Ireland and other science funding programmes had produced no results. In fact, the contrary evidence is overwhelming, and the significance of science research is supported in particular by those bodies whose task it is to secure investment for new business and employment.

Opinionated public discussion is a good thing as it encourages us to assess and question; but on its own it is not a basis for decision-making. We should not be making policy on the back of the views of the last person propping up the bar, however emphatic his pronouncements. We need to see that what we are deciding in relation to higher education is vital for the future of the country, and requires proper analysis based on the facts.

There is always room for a debate, and we must accept that there are different policies that could be adopted. But the case needs to be made every time, and the only acceptable case is one based on properly assembled evidence. So, no more wild assertions, and no more anecdotal reasons for new policies. Let the evidence speak.

And as a postscript, it is worth repeating the point of my previous post that we will run the risk of this kind of uninformed debate unless the universities themselves get better at communicating our key messages.

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16 Comments on “Let us be guided by evidence”

  1. Mark Dowling Says:

    It seems to me that Sean Barrett should have to explain how someone in academia this long can be ignorant of the realities of how universities are funded.

    It is probable that some analyses could find ways to run universities in a cheaper way than they are now, but such lazy estimation seems worthy of a non-academic blogger rather than someone who has the bully pulpit of the Irish media more or less when he wants it.

    Perhaps you should call Marian Finucane and challenge (erm) offer Dr. Barrett a tutorial on DCU’s finances and thereby invite him to at least invest in an A4 size envelope the next time.

  2. Vincent Says:

    In general that show was hostile to top pay made to all. Not just people within places of higher education.
    Someone made a point that 10% less than UK pay grade, at least. But it would instill some sort of competitiveness or perhaps leadership. It was a bit rich when pay went up at the end of last year. And it really bit people on the arse when Cowen et al, well it had shades of dear Charlie.
    It was in that context that the breakdown was carried out.
    Your sector was in no way singled out.
    But as you mention it, what is the cost of the chalk and talk. For it seems the tutorial numbers could be vastly reduced and a better education given as a result were the full moneys devoted in a transparent way following the person not the subject.

  3. Jilly Says:

    Having just had a look at Sean Barrett’s TCD webpage and seen that one of his last publications was making the case for privatising bus transport, I’m not sure I would waste any more time engaging with his views.

    But having said that, I agree with Mark that it’s astonishing that someone with many years experience of academic life could be so (supposedly) ignorant of its economics, let alone someone in an economics department! As well as the costs of running buildings that you mention, there are also the costs of running all of the other parts of college life: departmental administration staff and costs, student services, the counselling service, the finance office, the library…the list is enormous, and none of it runs for free.

    Indeed, I refuse to believe that Sean Barrett doesn’t know this, in which case he was simply pretending not to know it in order to make an ideological point which would have been sadly undermined by reference to the facts.

    Our problem of course may well be that we live in the reality-based world, rather than the neo-con bubble that I suspect constitutes much of the TCD economics department.

    • Ernie Ball Says:


      In your list of the expenses involved in college life, you left out the need for dozens of vice-presidents on off-the-scales six-figure salaries. Sure what university could possibly function at all without them?!

    • In fairness, I should say that I have known Sean Barrett well for quite some time. He holds a good many views with which I would not agree, and in many cases would disagree strongly. But I should also add that I have always known him to be personally kind and considerate, and he is always helpful to students and colleagues. Just for balance.

  4. Perry Share Says:

    I agree with you on this one. I caught the end of Dr Barrett’s comments on the radio and was amazed at his complete lack of knowledge of both economics and accounting, let alone any understanding of how a large business entity like a university is run.

    Like other posters here, I suspect that this ignorance is feigned, and rather serves some deeper ideological purpose, which is I presume is part of a process of softening up the third-level sector for a crude and clumsy process of unit-costing.

    It does not take long for myths to spread, and it will be interesting to track this new €1100 figure through the writings of ill-informed commentators over the summer.

    Presumably if it was possible to legitimately educate economics graduates to honours degree level for €1100, then the country would be full of private universities (who presumably could pay lower salaries plus not have to engage in research)doing just that. Indeed Dr Barrett could set up his own and make a killing (Barrettstown University?)!

    • Actually, Perry, the even more weird figure he gave was the cost of 4c per student per lecture. I think the average lecture size in Trinity is 80 or so. Therefore he is suggesting that the cost of a lecture is €3.20. This has to pay for the light and heat, course materials and the lecturer’s salary. He is presumably therefore arguing that, as the average number of weekly contact hours per lecturer is 10, and let us (absurdly) assume that 20c pays for the light and heat and all other overheads (including the expensive senior management), he is therefore suggesting that lecturers get paid €30 per week in term, and presumably nothing outside of it. I mean, the sheer nonsense of this – and nobody uttered a word of disagreement or doubt!

  5. Vincent Says:

    @ jilly and perry. What allows Barrett to fly this is that there are no clear numbers available. And in this climate that makes for unease.

    • Ah no, Vincent, that’s not the case. When I heard Sean’s figures I immediately went to TCD’s website and got all the financial and student information I needed to verify them – or rather, to confirm that they didn’t make any kind of sense. Anybody has access to the information, it’s all in the public domain.

      • Vincent Says:

        That is valid as far as it goes. But using the same numbers you can see that the ratio of academic staff to students is 1-18 and the ratio of total staff is 1-7ish.
        And then very rough crunching on the staff gives an OK figure of E53,333 on average. Which is a good bit above the industrial wage. But this cannot be realistic.
        And from these figures you cannot draw any inference for each area of income as Barrett has done for Economics. Nor I suspect can anyone else from outside. While the ‘gift’ from the Arts and Laws to the Medical arts and Sciences there is silence.
        Where you write ‘he is discounting the cost of providing a building, equipping it, heating it, cleaning it, repairing it, providing security for it, and so forth’. It seems here he is working with the idea of the hotel, where having built and equipped the thing, there is no cost unless it is used, this I think that is where the 1100ish euro comes about. Given they are going to pay a percentage of staff regardless how many less students they have. They could push the ratio out a tad to 1-8, that 1100 would fall.

  6. cormac Says:

    In most countries, Barrett’s figures would have been challenged on the spot. That an economist can get his figures so badly wrong, on an environment he should know something about, without comment from others on the program, is , to my mind, typical of many debates on Irish radio…God help us when it comes to his views regaring public transport…

  7. Jilly Says:

    Actually there’s no reason why Vincent’s figure of about 53,000pa as an average salary across all staff in TCD wouldn’t be realistic. Averages are notoriously broad figures, but universities employ huge numbers of staff (especially in clerical grades) who earn salaries at or significantly below the average industrial wage. The figure of 53,000 would be more in fact than the most junior academic staff earn, and a big slice of middling academic staff would earn only slightly more. Whatever one thinks of the issue of a few ‘top earners’ in some universities being on massive salaries, they amount to a statistically insignificant handful, and would have little effect on a college average.

  8. Sarah Says:

    I think Sean’s point is made by Perry’s claim that he is ignorant of “how a large business entity like a university is run”.

    That’s Sean’s point. Why is a university being run on business principles? It’s not a business, but is being corporatised so it sounds like a business. It has to have enough money to cover its costs but Trinity&UCD have been guilty of loading up with extremely highly paid administrators (and as far as I recall those in TCD attempted to keep those salaries a secret as they breached national agreements on pay). Jilly says these are “statistically insignificant” but they represent a) the priority of the organization and b) undermine the morale of the teaching staff.

    I didn’t hear the interview but I know he has long resented (and fairly so in my opinion) the diversion of funding from teaching to other areas. Or as one lecturer I know said “we can excel at Irish studies but instead we spend a fortune trying to compete with MIT in science. What’s wrong with sticking to what we’re good at?” Nothing wrong with attempting to compete, but the humanities is suffering disproportionately in the meantime.
    Barrett has been fighting a 20 year battle in TCD where teaching is seen as the bottom of the rung and landing a plum job as an administrator far away from students is the real cheese. He likes teaching and has to deal with an organization that he sees has developed a cultural distaste for it. Students uuuuuuuuuuugh.

    • Ernie Ball Says:

      I concur with most of what Sarah’s says.

      The elephant in the room (and certainly responsible for a high percentage of UCD’s debt, to take only one example) is the spending on consultants. Many of these consultants seem to have been hired simply to provide cover for decisions already taken: “the consultant advised us to do this.” According to this document from the UCD academic staff association, UCD spent almost €4.5 million on consultants in 2006 alone. When the overall debt of the university is approaching €20 million, such expenditure is not negligible. Meanwhile the actual departments that do the teaching and research are having their budgets axed to the bone.

    • Perry Share Says:

      Sarah, I never suggested that an educational institution should be run ‘as a business’. Rather a large institution like a university or an IT is *already* a business, or perhaps a ‘non-profit enterprise’ if that is a more acceptable terminology.

      Either way, it will have an annual turnover that is measured in tens or hundreds of millions of euro. It will have staff numbered in hundreds or thousands, and it will administer an estate that may comprise millions or even billions of euro worth of land, real estate, equipment, library stock, investments, pension funds, vehicles &c. It also has a significant quantity of less tangible but very valuable assets that might include research and teaching-related IP, goodwill, reputation, accreditation rights and political clout.

      Furthermore, in a place like Sligo the local tertiary educational institution is probably the most significant employer and economic player, with the possible exception of the general hospital.

      All of these assets have monetary value and most have been created by the investment over many decades of Irish and EU taxpayers’ money (not to mention Chuck Feeney’s!). I would certainly like to think that this huge investment is maintained, managed and protected on my behalf and that of my children by people who are competent, professional and informed by the best possible evidence-based practice.

      Needless to say, the people who are responsible for such maintenance of the national estate are invariably decried as ‘bureaucrats’ and ‘administrators’ and presumably they are the people who are wasting the surplus €11,500 per student from Sean Barrett’s calculations. But it is clear that people are required for these tasks and the challenge is to secure the best possible staff who are able to reflect the interests of the broad and infinitely diverse community that is a modern tertiary educational institution. It may even be that to secure such people that you need to pay them a decent salary.

      Administration and teaching should be mutually supportive and if teaching is on the ‘bottom rung’ at my alma mater TCD, as you suggest, maybe that says something about the political nous of the teaching staff at that institution (who have actually been running the place since its establishment).

      Of course Sean Barrett knows all this, so the question is why is he distorting the reality and in whose interests is such distortion taking place?

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