A private sector ethos

It is possible that Irish higher education will experience something of a culture war over the coming period. The new chair of the Higher Education Authority, John Hennessy, has said in a speech to a conference in UCD that ‘higher education needs to move closer to the values and practices of the private sector’. He is reported in the Irish Times as saying that this should in particular mean that universities and colleges should be able to hire and fire in the manner that is normal in industry.

The HEA chair had already attracted attention recently when he suggested that arts and humanities academics tended to ‘hold their nose’ when dealing with industry.On this more recent occasion he may have compensated a little by saying that ‘all students should experience arts and humanities subjects in their first year of college’. And still on the positive side, he has stressed the importance of institutional autonomy in the higher education system.

So what do we make of all this? In many ways it is quite refreshing to have one of the key players in higher education expressing such forthright views, as it will tend to sharpen the debate. At a time when the sector will in any case have to consider radical reforms, his interventions will provide some topics for discussion.

On the other hand, if the HEA chair believes that the answer to current higher education difficulties is to introduce routine private sector management practices into the system, he may find it is not quite as easy as that. It might be worthwhile for him to meet key university representatives and hear more about how the institutions operate and what problems they currently face before making suggestions as to what they need to do.

John Hennessy clearly means to be an audible contributor to higher education debate. That must be good. But while universities can and should learn from the private sector, and while greater institutional autonomy (including autonomy in human resources matters) is indeed a vital ingredient of success, private sector ‘values and practices’ cannot provide the sole blueprint for higher education. It is time to have a dialogue with the HEA chair.

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13 Comments on “A private sector ethos”

  1. Jilly Says:

    Mr Hennessey has so far given no indication that he’s interested in having a dialogue; or indeed in learning anything about the sector to which he’s been appointed.

  2. jfryar Says:

    What, exactly, is a ‘private sector ethos’? I’m constantly annoyed by people who decide we need to inact changes based on some nebulous definition of phrases that sound good on TV, radio or in print. Private-sector ethos like the banks? Private-sector ethos like the big oil companies?


  3. An equally interesting question is what private businesses might learn from the way good universities are organised. See Woodbury, Robert L. (1993) ‘Why Not Run a Business Like a Good University?’, Christian Science Monitor, March 23: 19-23.

  4. Ernie Ball Says:

    Let’s see: at the very moment that the IFUT executive has passed on a recommendation to ratify Croke Park, accompanied by all kinds of reassurances to a leery membership about the preservation of “collegiality,” in wades the head of the HEA with an utterly vacuous “idea.” The ideological underpinning of this “idea” is that private-sector business is our sun, moon and stars, the very source of all virtue and to be emulated in all fields of human endeavour. If only, say, the universities were run more like businesses then instead of having colleagues utterly dedicated to their vacations, we’d have employees motivated only by the fear of the managerial guillotine. No, wait, that’s not it. If only the universities were run more like businesses then we could have an obscenely-remunerated (since you can’t motivate true professionals without huge piles of money) managerial class with chauffeured merc limos planning out the “strategy” for those know-nothing plebes to execute. No, that’s still not right. If only the universities were run more like businesses then we could employ a number of extra layers of pointless bureaucrats. Think of it as a jobs programme. You’ve seen how well it’s worked for the HSE. It will truly revolutionise our universities going forward.

    God save us from these morons.

  5. Ernie Ball Says:

    Er “vocations.”

  6. Al Says:

    It seems like a monologue so far…..

    While not being against a business ethos, I find it as shorthand for a model of delivery that is insufficient to the educational environment.

    Quality is the foundation of any educational enterprise, it is what everything is built on. It can not be brought in after or clad on in remedial action. I don’t see many in business get this idea.
    Consider also whether anti plagiarism values are held in industry either?

  7. cormac Says:

    ‘higher education needs to move closer to the values and practices of the private sector’.
    What, like the banks? What an idotic thng to say. I can imagine what my grandad, the first chairman of the HEA, would have had to say of this chap. Unfortunately, it will be hard for academics to speak out against someone in such a senior position


  8. Does ‘values and practices of the private sector’ include CEO compensation of many millions per annum, pro-rata compensation for senior and middle management, first-class travel for senior execs, large bonus schemes, and bail-outs when things go wrong?


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