Irish higher education and the quest for something better

During my ten years as an Irish university President, one of my recurring and deeply frustrating experiences was encountering politicians who had persuaded themselves that the university sector received too much funding, wasted resources and needed more control to resolve this problem. Two of the four Ministers for Education who held office during my tenure came into the job proclaiming that something was wrong with the universities. One of them decided to test his suspicions by introducing funding cuts in the middle of an economic boom, while the other declared he was establishing a ‘forensic audit’ to find out where all the money was being stashed away by the institutions. Both of them hinted they had postbags full of complaints from citizens about wasteful expenditure in the sector.

Throughout the decade the university Presidents robustly defended the universities, pointing out that they delivered excellent results on the back of per capita funding far below that available to institutions in other developed countries. Then came the recession, and in 2008 we were advised that cuts would come soon, and would be brutal. Salaries were cut and employment was controlled, student contributions went up and government funding was reduced significantly. Now, six or so years on, the chief executive of the Irish Universities Association, writing in the Irish Times, has said that government funding has over this period been reduced by ‘almost a third’, seriously affecting the student experience and university rankings. Perhaps a little confusingly, he also suggests that ‘through the dedication and hard work of both front and backline staff in the universities, quality, although at risk, has been maintained.’

It is very difficult for universities to make a case that a crisis threatens to engulf the system when they also suggest that cuts of 30 per cent have not compromised quality. Indeed that suggestion might convince long retired education ministers that they were right all along. Global rankings tend to attract media comment, but how much they really affect university fortunes could be debated. Even student/staff ratios generate much more excitement amongst lecturers than they aggravate students.

One of the problems is that few of those engaged in the higher education conversation have made a clear case as to what constitutes quality, and therefore what could be put at risk by inadequate resources.  The quality assurance industry built up over the past decade or so has focused on process rather than substance, and reports emerging from that system give few clues as to how close we may be to compromised educational standards. Saying that quality has been maintained gives little insight into what might happen if ‘quality’ were damaged or lost. Nor does it tell us much about what investment could do to raise standards and assure global competitiveness. Saying something like ‘if you give us more money we’ll ensure that what we’ve always done is performed to the highest level of quality’ won’t be persuasive if you’ve just said that without this money you’ve actually managed to achieve the same thing.

Irish higher education clearly does need more money, but it also needs new ideas and new models of delivering learning and research. It needs a narrative, a ‘story’. The IUA is an excellent and well-led organisation, and there is imaginative leadership in the universities. Generating this story is not a task that cannot be performed effectively.

Calls for more funding, or for other resourcing mechanisms including tuition fees, will make little headway as long as those who will take the decisions don’t really see what the new money will buy and why that should be bought. It is time to generate a narrative that says something about what higher education should be doing that would have the potential to transform the lives of those experiencing it and the fortunes of the country, beyond what has been delivered in the past. It would perhaps be better to stop talking about percentages, or resources, or processes, and to focus instead on what a new and maybe somewhat different framework of higher education can do for society. People need to be convinced that there is something better out there that deserves some money. Right now, I suspect most politicians and officials are persuaded that cuts have gone some way to reducing excess fat without seriously compromising quality, and that the impact of these cuts can and should be contained by a bigger dose of centralised controls: the worst of all possible worlds.

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5 Comments on “Irish higher education and the quest for something better”

  1. anna notaro Says:

    “It is time to generate a narrative that says something about what higher education should be doing that would have the potential to transform the lives of those experiencing it and the fortunes of the country, beyond what has been delivered in the past”.

    This commendable task is not dissimilar from the one incumbent upon university leaders and anyone else involved in HE in the UK as well. Indeed, much could be said about ‘the quality assurance industry’ here which, often in ways not too dissimilar from what has happened in Ireland ‘has focused on process rather than substance’. Far from presenting a coherent and cohesive ‘narrative’ to politicians and the general public the HE landscape has all the characters of a deeply fragmented and polluted ecology, locked in a perverse struggle for competitiveness, where economics is the predominant discourse.
    One of the secrets of a successful story is for it to have something that makes it *unique*, we urgently need to rediscover what that uniqueness consists of, we need to *share* it as widely as we can and finally we need to take just pride in it.

  2. V.H Says:

    Once I’d have the greatest of sympathy for the plight of the hard pressed academic. But the quasi slavery of the lower levels coupled with an utter incapacity of those employed in full positions to think of anyone other than themselves just browned me off. Yes, the industry has the very real headache of loose canons and it can’t take a politician on a hack very long to find a few.
    But the truth is if you did use all Atlantic Philanthropies dosh on a building spree without one thought how you’d pay to staff them. It’s exactly the same when a locality fund raises to get an MRI and then think that’s that, all without one thought what the pay and pensions will cost.
    What I don’t get though, is how, given the volumes that have been through your doors and out the other side, you have such bad PR. The sector should have a rep’ akin to that held by the church in past times. And it should be that interference by the political class be something that would cause real terror to the pol foolish enough to try. But however much organizing academics to a message is akin to herding cats it is unconscionable what’s gone on.

  3. Greg Foley Says:

    Declining quality means: lecturers over-teaching to the point where they become stale and uninspiring and operating at far less than 100% of their ability (this has happened to me on occasion); lecturers teaching subjects far outside their area of expertise; increased reliance on adjuncts who, while highly knowledgeable and valuable in their own way, do require a lot of ‘minding’ by the permanent staff; important laboratory hours reduced; laboratory group sizes increased; opportunities to do meaningful final year research projects curtailed; crude, automated methods of assessment being used to cope with huge class sizes; a general reduction in contact time not because it is pedagogically appropriate but because it makes teaching loads manageable; a reduction in time available to develop innovative and better ways of course delivery (and these things need a lot of time). These are the sort of things we mean when we worry about quality.And the Provost was wrong – quality has been affected and what hasn’t been mentioned is the fact that many departments are in a very unstable position whereby the loss of key staff would seriously jeopardise the very viability of programs.

  4. Iosu Frias Says:

    The interesting issue raised here is the future and how to move out of this crisis collectively. What follows below is probably silly Friday evening thinking, so apologies in advance:

    To see how quality has declined, only have a look at students:staff ratios, total no of students and cuts in funding to see that things may have overshoot (and the previous comment is very clear on this)

    VH points to problem that XXI century academics act compete between each other within the same institution, but I think is something structural (promotion) rather than them being “enslavers”. Academic quality assurance and rankings are also focused on perception targeting individual staff to then sum up the parts (surveys, voting for QS, is there a Nobel prize winner in the quad?) . There seems to be little opportunity for a cooperative, interconnected multitude to raise to the challenge.

    The message across during these last year has been “to do more with less” and this is what has influenced the work (in my opinion) of a lot of well intentioned units and academics for six years. It would not be very cynical to suggest that the state at which some academics are 1) after the crisis effort and 2) the difficulty to formulate a collective response is that of euphoria and lack of awareness (working hard) and/or the burnt out syndrome with little new ideas.

    To ask for a bigger check is alright but how will the improvement be made, when collective action and new ideas are required?

  5. cormac Says:

    One other decline that will remain un-noticed until it is far too late is research output. It is extremely easy for permanent staff, browned off by incessant extra teaching and assessment, to simply ease off – the effect will not truly be seen for a few years.
    But here is an interesting statistic: at 4 out of 5 of the most recent international conferences I attended, I was the only academic from an Irish institution (north or south)

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