Why do our politicians not understand higher education? What can we do about it?
As noted yesterday, in Ireland a new government not even yet in office has set out its higher education stall, and from an academic perspective it isn’t pretty. There are no signs in the Fine Gael/Labour programme for government (Government for National Recovery 2011-2016) that the parties put much thought into the higher education elements, and it appears that are influenced by the general view that universities and colleges need to be centrally coordinated and controlled, and that the traditional way of arranging academic work and careers won’t do any more.
But Irish politicians are not unique. Across the English-speaking world in particular right now, governments are discovering a new enthusiasm to intervene directly in higher education. Partly this may be a product of the recession, as governments cannot afford to fund colleges, but feel they need to be seen to be ‘doing something’ about them. At that point it is particularly attractive to suggest that the institutions don’t need so much money anyway, and that with proper state supervision they can make big savings.
Ironically this trend of bureaucratisation as we experience it here is the opposite of what is happening in countries that in the past used to exercise tighter controls. In places as diverse as Germany and China restrictions are being lifted, in the belief that more autonomous universities perform better. Universities are being encouraged to determine their own focus and direction, and to plan strategically.
In the meantime, over here governments appear to believe that what has been holding back the universities is too little control. So the politicians and officials want to determine the shape of the sector, the correct number of institutions, the appropriate terms and conditions of academic and other employment, the academic areas they should address, and the search for sources of income other than the taxpayer. They believe that there needs to be more accountability, by which they actually mean more reviews, audits and paperwork. They feel that public criticism of universities encourages them to be more excellent. And they believe all of this without ever feeling the need to present a shred of evidence to support it beyond a few anecdotes.
So, are the universities all helpless victims of political myopia? No, that’s too simplistic. In many ways they have reinforced these beliefs, though perhaps not deliberately or consciously. Top of the list of opportunities missed has been their reluctance to be more transparent. Ask a university representative how many hours staff work, or what the money is being spent on, or what standards today’s students achieve, or what the impact of university research is for society, and chances are you’ll get a complex and often impenetrable response. But nowadays everyone wants to have everything measured, while universities have often preferred a kind of intellectual vagueness. This is the age of accountability, and if you look like the one group in society that wants to escape from that, you will come under attack.
Also, if governments sometimes have unrealistic expectations of universities as instruments of economics and trade, some academics can come across as unnecessarily hostile to the idea that universities stimulate economic growth and investment. Of course university programmes should not be designed just to meet an economic agenda, but equally it is clear that universities, sometimes just by being there, are engines of growth – something that should be welcomed.
Politicians will determine our fate. We need to work with them, and to negotiate a modus vivendi with them. If we say, rightly, that policy needs to be formulated on the back of evidence, we too must be prepared to provide it. It is time for the academic community to be more effective in its own defence, so that the conditions that really do generate excellence can be protected, alongside the change and reform that we also need to contemplate. And once we do that, it is time for the politicians to listen.