Cutting to the bone

As in Ireland we prepare for a further round of cuts in university budgets this autumn – the extent of which is unknown but which are expected to be severe – it will probably comfort us little to know that we are not alone. Recent reports from Florida, for example, disclose that public universities there are being cut to such an extent that one institution can no longer afford telephones and has got rid of all fixed phone lines. That particular university has suffered cuts in public funding of $82 million and is now planning to lay off 200 employees. Indeed the situation is so bad that the university has established an ‘Office of Budget Crisis Support Services’. Ironically just as all these cuts take effect, there is a glut of student applicants.

The problems in Florida are an illustration of the confusion now spreading across many countries in relation to higher education – with government rhetoric often emphasising high-value innovation while funding cuts put in peril the institutions that must primarily deliver on this agenda.

In Ireland the reality facing us is stark. A university system that was seriously under-funded in good times, in which some institutions are facing financial issues that would in any other sector signal insolvency, is now about to be cut further. However understandable the government’s concern with public funding problems may be, it must be said that the sharp reductions in higher education funding have huge implications for the path to recovery. Renewed foreign direct investment will focus on industry links with high value university research, and domestic start-ups will often come out of university origins. It will become increasingly difficult for universities to deliver on this agenda. Indeed some will become so mesmerised by the financial crisis facing them that they will be distracted from most of their key tasks.

Of course the universities themselves must continue to look carefully at cost-saving measures, and we must demonstrate effective and prudent financial management; and of course we must recognise the budgetary realities facing the country. But we must also continue to press for  a financial framework that allows us to support the country and the drive for recovery. My fear is that the agenda for higher education, in the context of the current higher education strategic review, will focus on claims that rationalisation can save money and that universities are bad at managing their financial affairs. It is time for government (and some media commentators) to stop seeing universities as pampered institutions that could benefit from some efficiency gains, and to remember instead that we hold the keys to Ireland’s innovation strategy. As for the universities, we are more than willing to do our bit.

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6 Comments on “Cutting to the bone”

  1. Vincent Says:

    To be fair now, neither the Gov’ nor the media started this. That wheelbarrow can be parked two doors down. Not happy with index-linked pay and pensions or never having to use ones own money to build anything. No, he could not help him self. He could not see that it is cheaper to send someone to Yale than to Dublin Cork or Galway. Where they would be fed watered and stabled for the price.
    If the entire University sector was shut down and the result farmed to brilliant places in UK or the USA, there would be no revenue loss to the exchequer.
    For God sake, just add, stop moaning, and give the exchequer reason to fund you.

  2. iain Says:

    Well put, Ferdinand. The government is running with two main narratives at the same time and unfortunately they pull in opposite directions: massive public sector cut-backs and yet a desire for the near-mythical knowledge economy. Of course our concerns are also about the whole education system and the shocking conditions of many of our schools.

  3. anonymous Says:

    In my opinion, universities are very inefficient, particularly with respect to scientific and engineering research. Lecturers, who are supposed to be resident experts, do not participate in research; they merely advise from their desks. It is impossible to deny that if lecturers were forced to take a more active role in lab work with research students, efficiency and output would increase on four counts:

    1. Mistakes made in previous researcher in similar fields would not propagate through new research, thus reducing wasted time finding things out that supervisors should already know.

    2. The research areas would tend to be more focused. In other European countries, such as France for example, the research is very focused on the field of expertise of the lecturer. This in turn enables the lecturer to focus the student quickly and efficiently, reducing the learning curve and producing results much sooner. However, in Irish universities this is not the case. The lecturers spend more time in board meeting and administration than anything else, and moreover, the research can lack serious focus.

    3. If the lecturer takes part in some lab work, the divide between the technical staff and the academic staff becomes smaller. Furthermore, the academics would not suggest ideas that are not practical. In my personal experience, technical staff are sometimes put off by the numerous academic suggestions, as the difficulties in implementing certain ideas are not shared between the academics and the technicians. The academics suggest it; that’s easy. However it is the technical staff that are left to pick up the pieces in implementing ideas.

    4. If lecturers had a more active part in the lab, then there would be more consideration made by them when purchasing equipment. I have personally seen how equipment was bought it, without consideration for the end user. The academics consider the basic functions of the equipment, however, not as much thought is put into user friendliness. This has a direct impact on the efficiency of the research, as a lot of time can be spent modifying equipment to make it more user friendly.

    I would be delighted to hear some opinions on these issues.

    • ‘Anonymous’, I’d be really interested to know where you gathered the experience you describe above. Certainly in DCU all lecturers are expected to engage in both research and teaching, and do so. Lecturing staff are regularly in the labs. I don’t have the same direct experience of all institutions, but on the whole I think it is similar elsewhere. I could be wrong!

      • anonymous Says:

        Well, it hurts me to say it, but I have had these experiences in DCU. I am currently a research student in a department at DCU, and have previously completed my undergraduate studies here also.

        Apart from what I mentioned above, there are other issues that affect the efficiency of research. For instance, when using some equipment it is necessary to have a technician present to satisfy health and safety regulations. This is fine of course, however, this is a problem when there is only 1 technician able to use this equipment. Thus when this technician is ill or on holidays, no work with this equipment can be performed. This could easily be avoided by training 2 or more technicians to use each piece of equipment. Obviously, this problem also increases the waiting time if the technician is busy on other duties.

        For example, at this current time, I would on average need to give at least 3-4 working days notice if I need to use a certain piece of equipment for my research. If I only do 10 experimental runs per year, and I take 4 weeks holidays (including Christmas), I would spend about 140 days of the working year waiting for this technician to be free (to only perform 1-2 hours work on the equipment). It is not always possible to arrange further in advance as it is necessary to fully analyse previous results and present them to the supervisor before the next run of experiments. Of course, I do my best to make the best of the time when I have to wait, however, I feel that research could run more smoothly,

        As far as lecturer participation in the labs, this is true for undergraduate practical assignments. However, on a postgraduate level, it would be rare to see a lecturer actually performing the work the are supposed to be expert in. I know of several cases where research students are supervised by lecturers who have little previous experience in that exact field. In my experience, it is rare to find senior academic staff that have expertise in many fields where they have produced exceptional progress in research. This is where I feel that the research in DCU can lack some focus. If this broadness of research topics were closed in, I also feel that it would be better in terms of finding external funding, sponsorship, and investment for projects, as investors would rest in the knowledge that the research is truly cutting edge and that significant progress could be made within a 3 year PhD.

        Finally, I would not wish to pin these inefficiencies on any group in particular, however, I believe that this department would benefit significantly from changes in policy. In my personal opinion, a greater sense of teamwork between the academic staff and technical staff would greatly enhance the output of the research. At the moment, it feels like the ‘book of responsibility’ is passed from Billy to Jack.

  4. […] Dublin City University President Ferdinand von Prondzynski recently discussed the question of funding to Irish universities (and specifically the dreaded government-decided concept: cost efficiency), commenting that in […]

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