The age of efficiency

When I was Dean of my Faculty in the University of Hull in the 1990s, one of the features of annual budgeting was the then Conservative government’s demand for a yearly ‘efficiency gain’. This was actually, of I recall correctly, a 1 per cent reduction each time in the budget allocation. It was not a ‘cut’, or at least we were told not to think of it as a cut; rather it was a hint that we could actually do more with less, and that annual reductions could simply be absorbed painlessly by doing things more efficiently.

Now we are back in this kind of world in Ireland. According to the Irish Examiner, the Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister) Mary Coughlan TD has said that ‘I think there are efficiencies that can be achieved within the third-level sector’. She also appears to suggest that the universities have proved this by succeeding in reducing staff by 6 per cent (something they have had to do under the government’s ’employment control framework’).

Nobody can say, of course, that there is nothing being done today in higher education that could not be done more efficiently. But here the idea being presented is something different: it is that yet more cuts can be applied without any real pain and without having an impact on the quality of the education on offer. So Irish universities should be able to lead international education on the back of resources that, even in good times, were well below the international benchmark, and which are now to be reduced further. Every independent analysis – and if the leaks turn out to be correct, the Hunt review in Ireland at the present time – has confirmed that the current resources are not sufficient to maintain a quality education system, never mind any lesser allocations.

I have said before that I accept that the Irish exchequer is in crisis. I accept that it is not unreasonable to apply cuts to higher education in the same way as to everything else. But if that is to be done, we must not pretend that it is all without consequence. Distributing scarce resources at a time of crisis is about setting priorities. Stating those priorities sends an important signal about how the country intends to regain strength and compete globally. The government has said it wishes to pursue a ‘smart economy’. In fairness, that message is reinforced by the welcome decision to maintain research spending in difficult times. But it is undermined by the hint that education can be provided on the cheap.

But even within a context of expenditure reductions, there may be ways of setting out an innovative education agenda, based on a careful analysis about pedagogy. But just reducing allocations isn’t anything more than a suggestion that education is just one more service we can no longer afford. And that’s a dangerous suggestion that doesn’t become more palatable where it is accompanied by the claim that it will all be fine if we are just more efficient. We’re long past that point.

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One Comment on “The age of efficiency”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Sorry, but you are going to have to stop this kind of statement, “Nobody can say, of course, that there is nothing being done today in higher education that could not be done more efficiently”. You are just making things too easy.
    It is time you closed the shutters and start thinking that you are very much under siege.
    Remember this is a low hanging fruit exercise for the Gov’. And it might be little harm for them to go after the Medics for a change. There is plenty of loose fruit ready to drop if given the correct rattle.
    One way or another they are latching on to 25bil on a yearly basis, between the exchequer Vote, insurance and cash over the table when you visit ones GP.

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