The complexities and contradictions of being an Irish academic
If anyone wondered whether there really is a lack of sympathy amongst the wider Irish public for academics and their working practices, the piece of what is described as ‘analysis’ by Eamon Delaney in today’s Sunday Independent should dispel that quickly enough. In fact, as anyone familiar with universities will know, much of what he writes in assessment of today’s Irish higher education institutions is total nonsense, but getting that across is made much more difficult by the fact that what he presents as facts and figures is on the whole correct. Salaries are what he says they are, the universities’ financial positions are as he describes, and what he says has been said has indeed been said (if you can follow that).
The recent campaign, described on this site and elsewhere over the past couple of months, to safeguard academic freedom has to many people (very unfairly) come across as a campaign to protect the special vested interests of an already privileged group, who uniquely are insisting on being exempted from what everyone else is having to endure. The reality is of course different. Academics have taken their pay cuts and have seen their working hours increased dramatically as hordes of new and unfunded students enter the higher education system; and at the same time the demands on them in terms of research have grown also, as colleges try to shore up their positions by winning more funds. While academic pay looks good to many observers, it is being earned by people who have longer and more demanding training than almost anyone else in society, and the top earners in the academic ranks have by now probably lost about 30 per cent of their take home pay, compared with what it was three years ago; and they still have mortgages based on what they once earned.
However, if anyone were to think that what Delaney writes is not what the general population thinks, they should disabuse themselves of that. His comments are wholly typical of what is being said ‘out there’; the idea that Irish academics are a privileged group trying to protect their privileges is taken as fact. So why can a different and more nuanced message not be got across successfully?
There are a number of reasons. But one of the more significant ones is this: nobody speaks to the general public on behalf of universities. Academic staff meeting in the Gresham Hotel and elsewhere seem, as far as the messages ‘getting out’ are concerned, to be chiefly engaged in a campaign of war against their own university managements, rather than, say, government or regulatory bodies. University management and their representatives (in the IUA) on the other hand are, as far as the public can perceive, totally silent, and whatever is done by them is done behind closed doors. The result is that the noise about the Croke Park agreement, far from opening up some sympathy for the academy, is further damning it in the public mind. Colourful attacks by somewhat long-in-the-tooth senior academics on their own institutions and how they are led probably sound good to internal dissenters, but will not enhance academic reputations in the wider world.
As the recent ’employment control framework’ events have shown, the Irish academy is under siege by a set of decision-makers who don’t understand it and who want to turn it into a more familiar type of public service bureaucracy. What these events have also shown is that when the academic community and its leaders work together, public perceptions can be influenced: my prediction is that the ECF will be revoked, and when that happens the remarkably united campaign of the past week or so will have been the critical reason for this. There is a lesson there. All those involved in Irish higher education must work together to present their case, in a united manner, and to do it consistently. There is too much to lose otherwise.