The university debate (guest blog)

Over the next while this blog will host occasional contributions to the debate about the future of the university. Right now in many countries, though not Scotland,  public funding for universities is falling (in some cases dramatically) and traditional assumptions of how they should operate are under pressure. Have these changes reinvigorated the idea of the university, or undermined it?

Here a view is offered on changes in the Irish higher education system, by Professor Ronnie Munck of Dublin City University.

It seems to me that the Irish university system is heading down a particular path without much debate or even basic reflection by those driving it down that path. The economic crisis brought on by the collapse of the Celtic Tiger has led to the austerity policies that the IMF once imposed on the developing world. University managers have agreed to a man (yes) that what the universities need is more of the market logic that brought us to this impasse in the first place. Just as with neoliberalism in it’s heyday (before the small detail of the 2008-09 global crisis) ‘there is no alternative’ and there is but one path to salvation.

This is politics, you might suggest. Our job is just to run the universities as best we can in conditions that are not of our choosing. But these are political choices that have been made and, always, people and societies can make other choices. Trade union members at Dublin City University have put out a ‘charter’ laying out ten basic principles they feel are core values of a progressive university fit for purpose in the 21st century. Given the severity of the crisis facing the Irish university (amply demonstrated in this blog) we should probably spend some time reflecting in a safe environment what we feel about this statement. I think all the points are debatable but at least we can agree that some of the right questions are being asked.

To rephrase the ten principles of the DCU Charter as questions we might ask ourselves:

1. Is the university a public good and if so, what does that mean? What level of industry input in its teaching and research agendas are we all comfortable with?
2. Do our university strategies reflect the needs of society at large and do staff and students feel they ‘own’ them?
3. Is our teaching designed to increase the employability of our students and nothing more?
4. Should the research agenda be driven to the extent that it is by economic and state interests, and is there an alternative logic?
5. We all claim to be engaging with society but is this really ‘core business’ in an era of austerity?
6. Are our students consumers of knowledge or our ‘customers’ (customer satisfaction include follows), or is there some other definition of student we might appeal to?
7. Is the current employment control framework, Haddington road, etc a sustainable human relations policy for the university?
8. Are MOOCs simply the only way to go and can we just ditch traditional teaching methods?
9. Are the too many senior posts at the university under present conditions, a slightly different question, are they over-administered?
10. Do we still value collegiality and creativity, or is it a case of ‘needs must’ and we need to run universities like businesses?

So over to you all. We were all once students and we should be able to respond coherently and persuasively to these questions. After all we ask our students to do this all the time!

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23 Comments on “The university debate (guest blog)”

  1. V.H Says:

    Is the university self conscientiously as distinct from incidentally a public good and if so should the government in the guise of the civil service control it. And your subset, should industry in meeting with the higher civil service be allowed to set agendas and targets for you and also for your graduates. Remember when industry are chatting about their list for Santa they are setting a 4 to 6 year projection without one bit of responsibility devolving onto themselves and their shareholders. Maybe another way of rephrasing that subset to point 1 would be, should the State be allowed to deploy it’s resources in the quest for private shareholder profit without at the very least taking a substantial shareholding in that company. It is after all investing rather a lot and at great risk if not to themselves than to those that are reading for the course. This question is of course separate from the State deploying it’s people like some sort of latter day gangmaster without one ounce of responsibility for things going ary.

    • ronnie munck Says:

      Should the state play a role in governance (defined as steering and not governing) of the universities it funds through the Higher Education Authority? I would have thought it was obviously Yes and all forms of autonomy (eg university autonomy) are always relative? But the main point of this blog is that those working at universities should be more forthcoming on the way ahead.

      Should IBEC and the world of business have a view on the research and teaching of the university? I would say again Yes but only as one stakeholder and not as priority player. One might presume that those engaged in teaching know something about it and there are lots of stakeholders in civil society who might also legitimately input here?

      • V.H Says:

        No, I totally disagree.
        I see and have seen a number of problems with the active involvement of the state, mostly dealing with short-termism but also profound inertia. Should the universities be independent they could shift like grass in the wind but what we’ve got now is a sclerotic unwillingness to upset the civil service by saying No. If companies want employees trained in new methods they should darn well pay for it. Not as now transfer the costs to the state and the potential employee. That’s just nuts.

        • ronnie munck Says:

          Yes I agree. Employers should not pass on their costs to the employee and research at universities (publicly funded) should not subsidise private profit enterprise.

          Yes you are also right on sclerotic management all around.

          But if higher education is funded from the public purse should not the public through its representative bodies not expect some accountability from those it funds?

          Universities no more than any other organisation in contemporary society can be said to be ‘independent’ can they? Of course they must be independent of any political tutelage if not we head towards totalitarianism……

          • V.H Says:

            But the phrase Public Purse is just a bit of administrative sophism. Where the holy is the stuff coming from to fill the thing.
            But look at the UK, they’ve gone down a route of pure insanity where they are neither fish fowl nor good red herring. And why, well look at the £30,000 a year it cost to send a sprog to Ampleforth and then what. They are expected to scrape the back of the ancestral sofa for the £10,000 to send them to a Russell.
            It would be far far simpler, and in the long run more open if the uni’s on these islands were given an endowment to match their current pensions bill and then told to get on with it. Yes they will get things wrong, but that will have the capacity to turn things which they can’t now.

  2. zoidy303 Says:

    You got wondering why universities should be funded at all by the State. There are many examples where this is not the case.

    It really depends upon the purpose of the particular institution as some may focus on academic research to gain greater insight for mankind. Some may try to satisfy the needs of the labour market. Many others besides.All seem admirable and not necessarily mutually exclusive.
    Indeed at one time we had the polytechnic and they catered for a different societal need. Sadly as both personal and/or academic ambitions intervened so they developed into the hybrids we know today.
    The root cause probably being funding in all it’s guises. My solution might seem too far right for many but I would resolve this problem by closing the NHS over a period of ten years and then invest the proceeds in education.
    Aristotle said the road to nirvana was through knowledge because with knowledge we have choice and with education we gain reasoning.
    To take such a step loses votes today but by continuing along our curt path we risk anarchy and disengagement with vast slices of society.
    Perhaps I have missed your point but I hope it has added to the debate.

    • ronnie munck Says:

      Aristotle wd probably not advocate ‘closing the NHS’

      But he might well say ‘Re-open the polytechnic’

      Guess my point is that funding regimes are political choices and the current model is not the only one

  3. brian t Says:

    I’m pleasantly surprised to see a piece about Irish universities which doesn’t immediately invoke Cardinal Newman and his “Idea of a University”. I will give him credit, though, for suggesting that universities should be providing a wider education than that covered by the student’s prescribed programme. At American colleges such as Harvard, for example, undergraduates have a more flexible structure and can indulge interests beyond their core topic, only fully specialising at postgraduate (university) level.

    The problem at the moment, as I see it, is that employers don’t need as many people as they used to, and can therefore afford to be picky about who they take on. They have cut back on in-house training, so there’s less “learning on the job”, and are imposing more requirements for relevant experience on student candidates. Which is fine if you’re a young student of rich parents, who can afford to send you off on an unpaid internship in some other city, taking whatever’s available. It’s not so great if you’re on your own, struggling financially, and there’s nothing in your area.

    It’s basic supply-and-demand economics: more graduates than there are jobs means that only the “best” – i.e. those who need less on-the-job training – are going to get in. Hence the demand on universities to make their courses match what industry demands – which is people who can do a specific job, not people who have a more general education and the potential to do many jobs with a bit of training.

    Do I have a solution? No, not without fundamental changes to the economy of Ireland. As it stands today, universities are producing graduates for export, since there’s little demand for them here.

  4. dcuunion Says:

    More statements of support for the charter, including one from IFUT General Secretary Mike Jennings, can be read here:

  5. Al Says:

    While appreciative of all efforts at sparking debate on the future of higher education in Ireland, I wonder about the aim of this post and of the original theses nailed on the door of D.C.U.

    A major element of the current crisis has been funding related and alot of the managerialims brought into play have been to discipline the cost process.

    Rather than talking about things that have been brought into play because of the costs question, wouldnt it be a more effective use of time to aim at the costs: how much, who, when, etc.

    I dont recall anyone offering to take a pay cut for the future of higher education, or to hand back their pension if still employed?
    Are we being pulled into the aristocratic end of the debate where such aristocratic perogatives are being defended whilst ignoring the gentries existing estates (wage level, rights, etc)

  6. ronnie munck Says:

    mmmm don’t remember seeing it nailed on the door….Its actually getting a fair bit of traction and beyond the usual circles..

    You are 100% right that the funding equation is critical and there cannot be a university serving the public good without adequate public funding

    You must have missed though the succession of pay cuts, freeze on new appointments and persistent casualisation which means today’s lecturer is hardly part of a labour aristocracy!

    • Al Says:

      Would you reject the thesis, keeping funding more or less constant, that it is the senior grades be they academic or management and their level of entitlements and the costs therein that is provoking the casualisation of everyone that has come in over the last few years and reducing the possibility of a career in academia for many of the talented up an coming?
      The past choking the future, if you will???

  7. ronnie munck Says:

    I would not disagree at all that universities contain huge vested interests and yes a bureaucracy whether personalist or technocratic that hinders the flourishing of new leadership talent. Like any bureaucracy (this being a Weberian term and not an insult) universities are inherently conservative in my view. We maybe need some more open debate on this one! Continuing as is is not an option with steadily decreasing resources, morale and credibility in the wider world around us

    • Al Says:

      I agree, but I fear for the future in the sense that the state dependance may make changes harder and any leadership impotent.
      If a USA private university set up shop in Eire in the morning, they could serious disrupt the existing ecosystem in terms of cost, industry interaction and internship.
      The R.T.C.’s were set up in Ireland many years ago to fill this gap that the universities refused to fill.
      Has this gap returned in our current times?

    • Al Says:

      I would also feel that this whole question of academia vs. industry and the idea of stakeholder involvement would be better had in a context of meritocracy.
      Meritocracy in the sense that all parties to the enterprise should have regard for merit, and allow it to guide developments.
      This applies to the arts as much as to chemistry or what have you.
      Academia should be able to recognise excellence wherever it is and integrate what is of benefit to students.
      If this is through stakeholder engagement then so be it, but, is stakeholder engagement always focused on this?

  8. ronnie munck Says:

    Al you know what I think is missing in Irish universities? It’s not money but critical thinking without which we will not get out of the hole we are in.

    All your points are critical, let’s hope they are picked up in the much needed debate (with no bars or preconditions) on the future of the Irish university.

  9. Niall Says:

    Has anyone actually suggested that MOOCs are the ‘only way to go’? They are very much in their infancy. While they are certainly worth experimenting with, they are over-hyped. In the true (O = open) sense they are free to the participants. However, they cost money to host and to administer. As they are massive, they are generally based on peer evaluation and peer feedback. Which to say the least is (when it happens at all) of variable quality.

    • ronnie munck Says:

      Eric Hellweg in Harvard Business Review says: ‘The advent of massively open online classes (MOOCs) is the single most important technological development of the millennium so far. I say this for two main reasons. First, for the enormously transformative impact MOOCs can have on literally billions of people in the world. Second, for the equally disruptive effect MOOCs will inevitably have on the global education industry.’

      • Niall Says:

        The statement by Eric Hellweg illustrates what I mean by ‘over-hyped’. Gianpiero Petriglieri dissents in his article in the Harvard Business Review on October 9th

        • ronnie munck Says:

          absolutely! point is some university managers seems to take the hype for gospel truth, a sort of technological determinism as though a technological fix and not new thinking will get us out of the impasse where the old is dead but the new is not yet born

  10. […] are my ‘answers’ to the Ronnie Munck questions. Apologies for the […]

  11. dcuunion Says:

    Update: the Defend the University campaign, supported by IFUT and SIPTU, now has a dedicated website where you can endorse the charter and keep up-to-date with the campaign. See

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