Subverting Irish university autonomy

Over the past three or four years a significant change has been taking place in Irish higher education. Since the publication of the Hunt Report in 2011 (National Strategy for Higher Education), there has been a visible shift of public policy in the direction of a more centralised management of the system. The state now regards it as appropriate to set a national strategic purpose to be reflected in individual institutional plans, and also to manage what has become known as the higher education ‘landscape‘ – the latter being the configuration of the sector and the identity and management of the individual universities and colleges within it.

And now, with remarkably little public attention regarding the implications, the government has announced its intention of introducing in 2014 a new piece of legislation in the form of a Universities (Amendment) Bill, the purpose of which is declared to be ‘to give the Minister the power to require universities to comply with government guidelines on remuneration, allowances, pensions and staffing numbers in the University sector’.

The picture that is emerging from all this is an interesting one: the government and its agencies will set an overall strategic context for individual institutions, will determine in which institutional configuration they will operate, and will determine centrally their staffing and human resources policy. Someone may have arguments in favour of such a higher education policy, but it will have to be stated clearly that it is completely incompatible with any – even limited – understanding of university autonomy.

No major policy shift should be undertaken in any area without a clear understanding of how it will produce benefits; such an understanding does not exist in relation to current plans for Irish higher education. It is acknowledged throughout the world that autonomous universities perform much better and produce much greater benefits for their host countries. Ireland’s universities are now being directly threatened. There should, at the very least, be a vigorous debate, and the universities should be vocal in it.

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18 Comments on “Subverting Irish university autonomy”

  1. no-name Says:

    First, seek to abolish the modicum of power-balancing provided by Seanad Éireann; second, attempt to consolidate power over universities; …. this doesn’t seem like a series that can end well.

  2. no-name Says:

    First, seek to abolish the modicum of power-balancing provided by Seanad Éireann; second, attempt to consolidate power over universities; …. this doesn’t seem like a series that can end well.

  3. V.H Says:

    This can hardly be a shock for anyone involved. This has been telegraphed for years, at least since the 90s. When the exchequer started imposing restrictions on the numbers at each level.
    I still don’t understand why they don’t disengage totally from the exchequer and start charging fees once more. Unilaterally declare independence and if the State wants a direction taken in some area it pays. And if it wants people educated that cannot afford it, then the uni’s send in a bill with VAT added.
    That might establish a system for companies to train it’s people also.

  4. Ernie Ball Says:

    The main problem at third level in Ireland is one nobody ever talks about: the explosion in administration numbers and their costs. You cannot rely on “autonomous” university administrators to reduce their own numbers. Hence the need for something like this legislation. They gave Hugh Brady autonomy and look what he did with it: a few million on bonuses for his administrator friends, a few million more on consultancies, ten million on the “gateway project,” etc.

    Of course, this being Ireland, it is likely that the administrators in the Dept. of Education don’t even see a problem. So they’ll probably conclude that there are too many lecturers or that the conditions of academic employment are insufficiently sweatshop-like.

    • foleyg Says:


      As Brian Lucey pointed out a while back, the most ‘administered’ universities are TCD, UCD and UCC in that order – the highest ranked institutions! To say that administration is the “main problem” doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. The real problem is the unsustainable student numbers and the unrealistic expectations of what the uni sector can deliver for job creation.


      • Ernie Ball Says:

        That’s your argument? That because the (now) over-administered universities rank highly that therefore over-administration has something to do with that ranking? Let’s leave aside the jejune faith in “the rankings” and the evanescently small sample size: what reason is there to think that the money spent on administration has anything to do with the quality of the education? None whatsoever.

        If all the administrators at a place like UCD were teleported to the planet Q-zar tomorrow, teaching and research would go on more or less as usual (although there’s surely be fewer meetings about how to game those “rankings” you put so much stock in). But there’d be a lot more resources to do that teaching and research rather than the current situation where administrative parasites are living high off the hog while the people who actually carry out the mission of the university are fighting for scraps.

        • foleyg Says:

          I’m not implying cause and effect – that would be ludicrous. I would simply say that there is prima facie evidence that the levels of administration in the institutions that I mention are not in any way affecting their quality and it is interesting that the ‘best’ institutions are the most heavily administered. People normally associate over-administered organisations with dysfunctional organisations – the HSE being an example. (Incidentally, the IoTs have much lower levels of administration something that probably reflects their narrower missions.)

          It is really up to you to make the case that the levels of administration are wasteful and counter-productive in some way – or maybe you believe that no administration is necessary? Even if there is too much administration, it is hardly the “main problem”.

          By the way, when I say ‘ranking’, I’m not necessarily talking about any particular international ranking system but simply making the common sense point that TCD, UCD and UCC are, in my view, the best all round universities in the country.

          • In fact there is very little evidence that Irish universities are, by comparison with others, over-administered. Recent research suggested that Irish universities on average have about 25 per cent fewer administrators/support staff per academic faculty than universities in the UK, and fewer again compared with US universities.

            And Greg, I’m amazed that you haven’t said DCU is one of the best!

          • foleyg Says:

            Ferdinand, when I gave these figures to my colleagues, they complained that the academics were doing all the administration! Can’t win.

          • Yes, I know – and there is some justice in that complaint as it happens…

  5. Ernie Ball Says:

    Wow, Ferdinand. I take great solace in the notion that Irish universities aren’t overadministered by the standards set by the most overadministered universities in the world.

  6. Ernie Ball Says:

    Actually, it is possible for the universities to be over-administered centrally while under-administered at the departmental level. That is very much the case at UCD currently where we have proliferating vice presidents, offices filled with chiefs and no indians and yet academic staff have to do all sorts of administrative tasks that used to be accomplished by administrators.

    • foleyg Says:

      So much negativity! You are in a profession where you have enormous freedom and where you have the privilege of being able to influence the lives of young people. Get a grip and stop moaning.

  7. Dan Says:

    Oh dear… If the 2014 University legislation campaign bears any relation to the Senate campaign and government spin, we can now expect a year of Ministers complaining that “universities have failed in their mission”, that they “cost too much”, that we could do “more with less academic staff” (‘the €20 million savings argument)…and while Irish universities are traduced by their own government, and fall down international rankings (pace Ernie), and staff struggle as their colleagues are not replaced, and resources removed, and class sizes grow..we do our best in the lecture theatres, and try to get our research projects published…

  8. Eddie Says:

    OMG, academics want the government to give universities the dosh they demand and keep well away from them! It is a delusion which only academics can have!

    “The state now regards it as appropriate to set a national strategic purpose to be reflected in individual institutional plans, and also to manage what has become known as the higher education ‘landscape‘ – the latter being the configuration of the sector and the identity and management of the individual universities and colleges within it”

    This is exactly what the Singapore government does. It interferes with the National University of Singapore ( NUS) at every level, and look at the NUS reputation and its world ranking? Not bad at all!

    We hear today what the newly elected Liberal federal government is going to do in the HE Sector in Australia. Sydney Morning Herald (SMH) reports:
    “Christopher Pyne reveals university shake-up”

    Hence, nothing surprising if a government in a country introduces an education bill to direct their universities. “He who pays the piper calls the tune”.

    About the proliferation of administrators. Well, if academics do the administration work related to what they do, there will be no need for administrators’ growth. Academics can happily give lectures, do research etc.. but if they are not prepared to do the related administration work, nothing further gets done.: no exam-related administration, no exam board meetings, no results publication etc.. etc.. As for research, well, we know what happens if administrators do not do their work.

    Oh, by the way, I was an academic, but now I know the real world having come out of academia!!

  9. ronnie munck Says:

    Dear Ferdinand

    Your readers might be interested in this charter on what a university is meant to be drawn up by academics at your old university DCU:

    Some might even wish to sign it!

    Ronnie Munck

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