Archive for January 2018

Public funding of autonomous universities: living with the complexities

January 15, 2018

Some years ago, when I was still President of Dublin City University, I attended a meeting between Irish government officials and university heads to discuss national higher education strategy. At one point the conversation focused on university autonomy. Everyone agreed that such autonomy is vital for an internationally successful higher education system; but what exactly did ‘autonomy’ mean?

It quickly became clear that each of the the two groups had a very different understanding of the term. The university Presidents saw it as the right and ability of an institution to set its own strategic direction; the government officials  believed it meant the right of the institution to decide the methods by which it would implement government priorities.

The gap between the two was maybe not quite as big as the above description implies, because even university heads accepted that if the state gave them public money, it had a right to insist that this helped to deliver key government objectives; but governments should not have the right to determine a university’s overall strategic direction.

These tricky issues are now again being thrown into relief in Ireland with the publication this week of a government-commissioned report of an independent expert panel, Review of the Allocation Model for Funding Higher Education Institutions. The recommendations contained in the report suggest that funding contingent on the achievement of government objectives can be compatible with the preservation of ‘institutional budgetary autonomy’. The latter however is defined as being about the ‘internal allocation of funds’, not about the harnessing of funds to develop an institutional strategic direction.

The report sets out a number of hard-to-argue-with objectives of a new model, such as widening access and support for research and innovation. However, it proposes complex allocation criteria and formulae that would, inevitably, erode the capacity for flexible use of funding within institutions as these learn to play the system and therefore chase particular performance indicators on a mathematical basis to maximise income.

For me, the Scottish system of ‘outcome agreements‘ is easier to apply and more flexible. It generates agreed targets (which do also in part reflect government priorities) which are set within a wider strategic framework that universities can develop for themselves, and doesn’t align the funding criteria too closely to these in any detail. These leaves much greater operational and strategic flexibility, while still giving the government a degree of assurance that institutions are working with public policy objectives.

Irish universities already suffer significant disadvantages in terms of autonomy, such as the controls exercised by the state in staffing and remuneration. Adding to these disadvantages, even in an understandable cause, carries major risks. The recommendations of the expert panel should be considered with some care.

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The will of the people

January 9, 2018

Citizens of the United Kingdom have over the past year or two become accustomed to a particular assertion – that there is one thing beyond argument, because it is ‘the will of the people’; and that of course is Brexit. Let us not re-open all the EU debate for the moment, because that is not the intention of this blog post. Rather, I am interested in how our view of democracy is evolving.

Until 2016 the ‘will of the people’ would rarely have been a topic of discussion in Britain. Of course elections produce governments and all that, but I cannot recall any government ever brandishing its parliamentary majority and proclaiming that its manifesto promises were now ‘the will of the people’. Indeed doing so would be very questionable, since British governments are typically elected with the votes of a less-than-overwhelming proportion of the population. Elections are a process in which the people participate and by which parties or groups of politicians form governments, where they have managed to negotiate the system satisfactorily. It works, and has on the whole provided the UK with reasonable stability and security. But it would be hard to say that elections revealed the will of the people; governments so formed were just less incompatible with the will of the people than any other option.

A referendum is a different class of decision-making. In the UK in 2016 the people voted, and a majority decided on a particular course of action, with profound consequences of course. The people became the government on this issue, having been briefed, with outrageous contradictions in the briefings, by politicians and activists on both sides. And now even elected politicians must, if they are to avoid the unwelcome attentions of some tabloid newspapers, fall into line, no matter who elected them and what views their own voters might have on the issue.

So if the electorate can take this political decision, why not others; indeed why not every major decision? It is not a completely outlandish thought: Switzerland does something that comes pretty close. Many major decisions there are taken by the people in referendums: in 2016 there were nine such referendums, and in 2017 there were three. Of those twelve propositions put to the vote, five were adopted by the electorate, and the rest were rejected. So for example the people decided to smooth the way for third-generation immigrants, and to reconstruct a tunnel; and they rejected a revised corporate tax code.

Should the electorate be taking such direct decisions? On the whole, in our system of government we don’t think so. Then again, the UK does allow its citizens to make proposals for parliament, which parliament must debate if such proposals attract enough signatures. These petitions can be seen here. As you might expect, here you find numbers of people riding their favourite hobby-horses. Of course there’s a whole lot of stuff about Brexit (some of it quite zany). There are a few petitions about hunting. There are several which are, frankly, impenetrable. More to the point, none of these (the recent petitions about the state visit of Donald Trump being an exception to the rule) will ever make any difference, because they won’t attract the required number of signatures. Even those that are brought to parliament’s attention will not in the end lead to anything much.

I think European countries (except Switzerland) were right, in the first place, to establish representative democracies. We elect politicians, and we allow them to exercise judgement. Sometimes their judgement, by a significant majority, will not follow what we must assume is a majority popular view (capital punishment being a good example). But that is also good because while the majority must rule in a democracy, it must not always get its way; because if it did, it would be able to oppress minorities and endanger human rights, sometimes unwittingly. Let us not go that way. The will of the people should not always determine our frame of reference. Not least because popular opinion is fickle: opinion polls tell us that there is, apparently, a degree of buyer’s remorse regarding Brexit.

Happy New Year 2018

January 2, 2018

May I wish all my readers are a very happy New Year!

And as I always want to be helpful, you can find a list of words not to use in 2018 here. To be honest, I don’t think I have ever used (or even come across) ‘nothingburger’, but there you are. It can’t be that impactful, but what the hell, covfefe!