Finding the bottom line?

In the context of an article in yesterday’s Sunday Independent newspaper on the budget and staffing cuts now being imposed on universities, Tánaiste and Minister for Education, Mary Coughlan TD, is quoted as saying that ‘the bottom line was that Irish universities would have to do more with less because of the recession’. In fairness, she also said that she would be willing to talk to the university presidents, but about what exactly?

It is now really important that our politicians and civil servants understand that, from the point we have already reached, we cannot do ‘more with less’. This is not because we don’t want to play our part in steering the country towards recovery, it is precisely because we do want to help but cannot do it this way. What the Tánaiste said indicates she believes we still have ‘fat’ in the system and that we can absorb cuts while still expanding activities. Of course in one sense she is right: we can go on adding students and teach them with fewer staff; but what we cannot do is to teach these students to an acceptable level of quality.

The universities will need to come up with an alternative vision. Simply rejecting the Tánaiste’s analysis is unlikely to get us very far. What we need is a coherent alternative view of how we should now proceed and how this would be affordable to the taxpayer. Right now there is little sign of an emerging higher education strategy in Ireland coming from the government or its agencies. We may need to do that job ourselves.

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5 Comments on “Finding the bottom line?”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    There probably is some “fat” in the system but as many of us tragically know some fat is virtually impossible to shift. Labour protection laws,in this case, make it next to impossible to get rid of people who are under-performing. I don’t actually that there are hordes of such people in the universities.
    But there is also the opposite of “fat” (whatever that is) people doing the work of two as those leaving are not replaced. I suspect this is more of a problem for the admin’ staff rather than academics. This isn’t sustainable either.

    • Ernie Ball Says:

      many of us tragically know some fat is virtually impossible to shift. Labour protection laws,in this case, make it next to impossible to get rid of people who are under-performing.

      This is just offensive nonsense, Kevin. In the case of academics, what you refer to as “labour protection laws” are the institution of tenure the purpose of which is to safeguard freedom of thought and expression. To take only one example, could one expect your colleague, Morgan Kelly, to have taken the public positions he has if doing so would mean jeopardising his livelihood?

      But even to raise the question of “fat” among academics is to miss the forest for a few saplings. There is “fat” and it’s almost entirely on the administration side. Look at the multiplication of Vice-Presidents in recent years at UCD, all of them on six-figure salaries and one on a salary of over €400,000. Want more fat? Let’s talk about the sums spent on consultants in recent years at your home institution (which is also mine).

      In this context, it’s an obscenity to act as if so-called “unproductive” lecturers (all of whom teach, by the way) are in any way part of the “fat” that needs trimming.

      We could also talk a bit about the productivist ideology that virtually all discussion of the university in this country takes as given. For it is nothing more than an ideology. And it has pernicious effects for world scholarship: forcing lecturers to publish who are otherwise not (yet) inclined to say something is like forcing someone to talk. “Say something, goddamit!” In both cases the value of what is produced is virtually nil. There are very good reasons to contest this ideology in the name of academic freedom. And any notion of academic freedom worth anything ought to allow such dissent from any and all such ideological commitments. In short, academic freedom also includes the freedom to decide all of the modalities by which one chooses to manifest one’s scholarship, something that the productivist mentality (with its emphasis on articles to the exclusion of books, on publications to the exclusion of other forms of participation in the community of scholars) denies.


      • Ernie, some of what you write here is worth discussing further. I’m not sure I agree that academic freedom includes the freedom not to publish anything at all, if that’s what you are suggesting – in the sense that academics in universities agree contractually to do research. On the other hand, whether that entitles the unbiversity to discipline them is another matter.

        I would however – gently – remind you that there *are* universities out there other than UCD, and that the debate about these matters cannot just focus on Belfield!

        • Ernie Ball Says:

          Academics in universities usually agree contractually to do research. I just had a look at my contract and what it says is “as far as is compatible with the other duties of the post, the staff member shall devote himself/herself to research and the advancement of knowledge.” Now, admittedly the newer contracts may say something else, but I don’t see anything in my contract that says anything at all about publishing. And that is as it should be. Research is not publishing. Publishing is one way in which research is expressed.

          To insist that research and publishing are the same thing is tantamount to never allowing research to fail in its findings. It is to make it unlikely that researchers will ever take any risks. As such, it is inimical to the ethos of the scholar and the university.

          Let me put it to you this way: what do you gain by forcing those who do not yet have anything to say nevertheless to say something? The satisfaction of knowing that you’ve prevented someone (who has nothing to say yet) from slacking off? Is this sort of puritanism really beneficial to world knowledge, clogging our libraries, as it does, with whole buildings full of makework and thereby making legitimate scholarship that much harder to find? It does nothing but decrease the signal-to-noise ratio of our libraries. It also results in a race to novelty for its own sake. In some fields (literary studies, notably), for any given author, most of the true positions have already been staked out. Scholars studying, say, Shakespeare who want to make a name for themselves (and who have been forced to publish) can only really do so by saying something outlandish and exorbitant and, ultimately, false. But nothing in the publish-or-perish model acknowledges this law of diminishing returns, particularly in humanities research.

          Do bear in mind that it is possible to be a full-time scholar and teacher, engaged in research in every spare moment and yet not have anything to publish. Socrates never wrote anything. It is possible to be a fully committed intellectual and find academic publishing to be utterly pointless. That doesn’t mean that one isn’t doing scholarship and it doesn’t mean that one doesn’t have things to teach. One can be very effective at bringing students into a given centuries-long conversation and humble enough to recognise how limited one’s own ability is to add to that conversation. But such humility has no place in the contemporary academic sweatshop. There is no place, as Lindsay Waters, Humanities Editor for Harvard University Press, puts it for slow-cooked and deeply meditated scholarship. There is only room for McDonalds and Google and Facebook and blogs.

  2. Vincent Says:

    Certain trees shed huge branches in times of shortage. And I honestly believe that your paymaster will continue to squeeze until you do something drastic like that. And it’s to some extent your own fault as for years now your commerce management and MBA has had its main focus on penny-pinching cost reductions.


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