Remodelling the universities

From the public debate about higher education that is taking place right now, it seems clear that there is a reasonably widespread scepticism about the model that has characterised Irish universities during recent times. Broadly speaking, that model was built around a small number of key principles:

• universities are autonomous institutions that devise their own strategic goals and mission;
• for the purposes of domestic undergraduate education, they are wholly taxpayer-funded;
• they choose their own priorities as regards programme development;
• funding of teaching and students (while subject to budget limits) is demand-led;
• universities are expected to promote both teaching and research;
• high value research is incentivised in line with national priotities;
• universities are expected to support local and regional and national economic development and regeneration;
• universities report to and provide information and data for the Higher Education Authority.

Although significant elements of this model have been around for some time, some of the key characteristics are based on developments over the past ten years or so, in particular the enactment of the Universities Act 1997, and the establishment of the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI) and of Science Foundation Ireland (SFI).

Even before the current economic pressures arose, there were signs that this model no longer had the confidence of key stakeholders, including politicians of all parties. It is probably fair to say that a general scepticism has developed about the merits of university autonomy, or at the very least its extent; about the viability of programme development that was not more directly guided by national priorities as identified by government; about the risks inherent in not directly controlling university expenditure and finances; about the effectiveness and value of high cost research; about the impact on the student experience of that research; and about the viability of the regulatory oversight.

These concerns or prejudices (depending on where you stand) are now converging on us and have been given some traction by economic and public finance developments. In so far as some of this is accurately reflected in the report of the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes (‘An Bord Snip Nua’), we can begin to see a new model emerging for the university system; or perhaps in some respects an old model, because what you see is maybe a return to parts of the pre-1997 model. This would see a return to teaching-led institutions (with only pockets of high value research, possibly concentrated in a small number of institutions), greater bureaucratic controls, undergraduate programmes with student fees or contributions, and a national framework of priorities that universities are expected to apply to their courses and projects.

What may not be clear to those charting this course (though it certainly should be to some of them, as they work in universities) is that such a remodelling will do more than just change the nature of higher education, it will remove the capacity of higher education to be a driver in building high value economic activity for Ireland. A national bureaucracy that is buried deep in paperwork associated with authorisation processes for employment decisions, funding impact assessments, curriculum and programme approval, and so forth, will be in no position to respond to scientific, industrial, cultural and social demands and needs. While the trend over recent years for universities to develop fast track strategic responses has not always found a welcome within the institutions themselves, and while perhaps these mechanisms have not always been skilfully managed, they have revolutionised the capacity of institutions to respond intelligently to national challenges and opportunities. For example, the development of the concept of the ‘Fourth Level’ to underpin economic growth in a post-manufacturing era was undertaken by the universities themselves, and was not the product of the political process.

However, what I am arguing here, and what the universities might argue, may of course amount to special pleading. I am not suggesting that we have always been right. But if we are remodelling a system that is really still in its infancy, then we should not do it by stealth, but in accordance with a thought out design. There is a strong need for a proper debate, based on informed comment, good data and appropriate evidence. And we need to stop pursuing change on the back of assertions and assumptions that are unmolested by any signs of evidence. If we want a ‘smart economy’, or indeed a ‘smart society’, then it’s time to be smart.

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10 Comments on “Remodelling the universities”

  1. Vincent Says:

    There is so many flaws behind such reasoning -ha, reasoning- that enumerating them would be pointless. So, I will simply lump them under the heading Utilitarian Bull****. But one argument should copper them, the Universities have the ability currently to react and respond to each and every new thing that comes along the ‘pike. If, as is wished, all decisions are made by the state bureaucracy after demand is expressed by some company. When that company leaves or the technology becomes obsolete. We would then have the headache of retraining however many graduates from scratch. Not as now, where the only aspect requiring re-training is that small aspect which is outdated.
    But what I do not get in this debate is that it is being enunciated by those who have been to one or other Uni’. Why then are they determined to introduce a trade system which is out of date even in the trades since the days of the printer laying type.

  2. Eoin Says:

    Finally, Professor, we have arrived at the crux of the issue of third level education! I have been following your blog for some time now, particularly because I have a vested interest as a student in U.C.C. in what you have to say on the future of our third level system.

    Getting back to your argument over the remodelling of universities, I have something to add.

    We must remember why we are looking at the remodelling of the universities. Particularly, we must remember that it has been the improper funding of third level and the mismanagement of finances that has led us to a re-evaluation of the current model and what we can do about it.

    Earlier this year I attended a debate over the re-introduction of student fees. The proposition, “That this House would re-introduce third level fees in Ireland” was headed by a man familiar to all the third level elite, Dr. Ed Walsh, former President of U.L. and the opposition was I believe Colm Murphy, former President of USI.

    At the time, the discussion on third level fees was in its infancy and the Ed Walsh had first exposed us students to the idea of student loans, to which Mr. Murphy rebuked that there were severe problems associated with the model. That argument really is irrelevant for this discussion. However, I would like to share a point that came to me during the debate.
    We like to look at this remodelling, particularly the remodelling of finances, as a responsibility of the State, who largely fund the sector, or the responsibility of the student, who are the end-users. This essentially became the two opposing sides in the fees issue- who should pay, the Government or the students? Yet this betrays a central facet to the model that has not been adequately addressed in this country.

    In terms of University funding (and correct me if I’m wrong), I believe that there are 4 major sources of income: State grants, Tuition Fees, Corporate Sponsorship, Alumni and other private donations. We seem to focus on two of these in this country, whereas in the United States the majority of University funding, and by far the largest piece of the pie is the finding coming from the Alumni and other private donations (if you don’t include spending by the Defence Department on new military systems).

    What is funny about the American system, and believe me I am no fan, is that there is a concerted effort on the part of the Universities to TAKE RESPONSIBILITY for their finances. We have tried (and largely failed) to attract private and corporate donations in this country. In U.C.C. for instance, the Boole library is named after a famous Cork mathematician. In the American universities, the libraries are named after donors with large pockets. Which is nicer? Probably the former- yet the latter ends up with a much greater scope for expenditure and investment.

    The point I am getting at is this: we bandy the argument around that the government is responsible, or the end user is responsible for the funding of third level education. The fact is, the only model that has resulted in excellence is the model achieved when the University takes responsibility for finances.

    I’m not saying the State does not have its part to play- let me extinguish that idea as forcefully as I can. Similarly, the student has an important part to play. Nevertheless University finances are mostly the responsibility of the University. If you don’t have the funding, DO something about it. Don’t lobby the HEA for more money or ask the students to contribute more to the student services grant because our eyes have gotten too big for our pockets.

    This is a point that must be included in any discussion about the remodelling of the Universities in Ireland.

    This is a point that must be included in any discussion about the remodelling of the Universities in Ireland.

    • Perry Share Says:

      Fair enough Eoin, but turn your head around 180 degrees and look at some of the university funding systems in Europe. They are completely different to the US model and also worth bringing into the debate. You might also want to look beyond the Harvards and Princetons towards the US public university system.


      • Perry, I’m not wholly sure what we’d learn from European funding systems. But perhaps you have a particular model in mind? I agree with you about looking to the wider US system.


    • Thanks, Eoin. I think the first problem is that Irish universities are placed under serious restrictions as to how they can generate income from their core business (i.e. education of students). Essentially they are told by government what their income is, and they are not allowed to generate revenues for that core business from any other source.

      I agree with you about philanthropic donations from alumni and from other benefactors. We are only beginning to pursue that agenda, but it has to be seen in context. In the US there is a culture that encourages and promotes philanthropy, and people from all income groups regard it as natural that, whenever they can, they should ‘give back’ something to society. This is what has underpinned the very successful fundraising of US universities. For now, we don’t have that culture here – people simply assume that funding education is a government responsibility, and they don’t see why they should make contributions. Furthermore, philanthropy typically funds capital projects, it doesn’t subsidise running costs, even in America. As it happens, all Irish universities are getting better at this, though we still have some way to go. And by the way, DCU’s library is names the O’Reilly Library, for reasons you’ll be able to guess; so we did what you suggest.

      The real key is that we must diversify our sources of income – but that’s not easy to do, and cannot be done overnight, and requires careful planning and monitoring with appropriate safeguards. In DCU we have been working on that agenda for some time, with some success.

      • Eoin Says:

        Well in that case I must congratulate you on taking the first steps. If the name of your library is anything to go by, DCU seems to have a made a significant effort and recruiting outside investment.

        In terms of the remodelling of the Irish universities, do you believe that the current model is unsustainable? Do you believe that the current restrictions you refer to should be lifted?

        It’s funny how you mention the alumni culture in Ireland contributing to the lack of University funding. I recently asked my classmates whether in a few years times when we got good jobs that we would only have achieved through the university, would they consider “giving back”. They all said no. It hadn’t even entered their minds. I, as someone who spent a considerable proportion of my life in the United States, was appalled. I figure that especially if I got an excellent education for free that I owe the university something in return.

        You are right that we must diversify our income, but what I could like to know is do you feel that it is the responsibility of the Universities to do so and following from that how far does the concept of University autonomy go? Are the Universities mostly responsible for their own income/expenditure and general management of finance? Or should the State, as the current model suggests, be the main contributor to University financing? If it is the State, can you really blame the HEA or the Department for coming down on the Universities the way it has, especially considering some Universities have not existed within their budgets?


  3. as long as the university can maintain its goals to education and not business, I think it’s okay

  4. Hugh Says:

    Its ironic that Dr. Ed Walsh’s name has come up in a discussion about Universities taking responsibilty for sourcing outside funding. Unless I’m mistaken, Dr. Walsh was the first and probably the most successful University head in terms of tapping outside sources at the time when UL was being transformed from NIHE to University in the 1980s. So I think its wrong to say that we’re only beginning to pursue that agenda.

  5. Joseph Says:

    I do and did find it curious that a country of less than 4M people had around a dozen institutions that this American would call a University. That is akin to the city of Los Angeles (and only LA, not the whole of the county, or adjacent counties and cities, etc.) having twelve universities…

    That being said, all of these institutions do have decent-sized student bases, service various geographic areas of the country, etc…

    Then again, since most students attend whatever university is closest to the hospital in which they were born, there would be no harm in merging a few so as to eliminate poorly duplicated services across the sector…

    That seems to be a no-go though as we cannot even perform such elimination at the institution level (at least, not in my institution, after a decade of trying), let alone the sector level…

    Let’s not get started on the whole alumni funding angle. Until recently my universities did not even have an alumni office, let alone track or keep in touch with graduates…


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