Higher education, and serving the public

In almost exactly one month we will all get a better idea of what our lives will be like over the coming years.  On December 9 the government will unveil its Budget and Book of Estimates for 2010, and this will tell us what money the government will spend and on what, and how funded, over the coming year. Of course as we also know, this event will be preceded by negotiations, days of action, protests, lobbying and all other methods of influencing known to humanity. But whatever may be the result of all this, we know without question that in 2010 we will have fewer resources in the public sector in Ireland, and that measures will be implemented in particular to ensure that over the years ahead the public service will shrink. And given the state of the public finances, there is no way of avoiding this.

Right now, I am for a moment less concerned about the financial implications for the university sector. I fear that we will be facing very serious resourcing problems, but difficult though it may be to believe that, our declining revenues from the taxpayer are not the most serious issue. Still far more of a problem is that the new outlook on public services threatens to impose on higher education an overall control framework that will remove institutional autonomy and seriously undermine institutional flexibility and initiative. As the government seeks to control its financial commitments, it may try to se the same mechanisms to reduce the expenditure of universities that it will use to control government departments and agencies. We already have one example of that in the form of the employment control framework, which if fully implemented imposes reduced staffing levels and case-by-case controls over staff recruitment. All this will happen at the same time as universities are encouraged or cajoled into increasing their student intake.

We cannot really argue that we should be allowed to spend more taxpayers’ money, as we know that it just isn’t there right now. But the current circumstances seriously reinforce the need to reconsider our status as (at least in part) public service institutions. Universities are not public bureaucracies, they are knowledge organisations with a mission to teach and develop and disseminate knowledge. They need to be able to operate with great flexibility and they should have a reduction (rather than increase) in controls from government in order to maximise their potential for meeting national needs. Universities need to be entrepreneurial, not to be bureaucratised. They should of course be accountable, but not controlled.

There is a major need for a wider discussion on the nature and purpose of the public service in Ireland. But separate from that, there is a need to re-design our understanding of what universities are. They are not corporate entities or private for-profit organisations; but equally they must not be seen as government agencies with the sole role of applying the latest policies under central control.  All the evidence is that the current trend is the other way, and that the imposition of tight controls is now public policy. It is a bad policy.

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One Comment on “Higher education, and serving the public”


  1. The reason why education is important for kids is due to the fact that they must have a high school diploma or GED to enter college and prepare for a future .


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