It was sometimes said in the past that universities have to deal with the issues and problems of the modern world, but find very little to say about them in public. While university heads are often found lamenting the lack of resources for higher education, they say little about pedagogy, educational values or the benefits of scholarship and research. Over recent years this has begun to change – and maybe I am arrogant enough to say that, in Ireland, I made my own contribution to that. In any case, others have followed suit, including my successor in DCU. And now the new Provost of Trinity College Dublin, Paddy Prendergast, has delivered a highly interesting inaugural speech on his university and its place in the world.
The Provost did address the issue of lack of funds, pointing out that TCD’s global ranking, with far fewer resources than its international competitors, was by no means an inadequate achievement; but that it could be much better with a greater investment on a par with what is the norm in other countries.
But perhaps the more interesting comments in his speech reflect on the relationship between public trust and regulation. Here is what he said, in more detail:
‘Increased regulation is inversely proportional to trust. We are currently suffering a chronic lack of trust, and so the Pavlovian response is to demand more regulation. But we’ve got to get trust back into the system. Ireland cannot prosper without it. Nothing flourishes in a climate of fear and suspicion. Trust is linked to accountability. Institutions worthy of trust are happy to be held accountable for their decisions.’
The Provost is clearly right in identifying this as one of the key issues in higher education today. For reasons that many in the sector don’t understand or appreciate, there is a visible lack of trust and confidence in the wider community that university decision-making is prudent, reasonable and transparent. Based on anecdotal evidence (and often not much more), there is also a lack of confidence in the willingness of academics to devote sufficient attention to students.
Paddy Prendergast is right in seeing this as a critical problem that needs to be addressed. The temptation for governments and their agencies has been to respond to criticism of universities by imposing new regulatory constraints and limiting their freedom of action, in the apparent belief that universities will then behave more rationally and that their activities will provide better value for money. This is far from obviously the case, but in order to avoid this response from becoming more emphatic universities need to address the issue of public confidence and to persuade the public that they are meeting their responsibilities effectively. Good communication is an important first step, and in this context the Provost’s inaugural address was well judged. It should be part of a new landscape of transparency and advocacy in the cause of higher education.