Public funding of autonomous universities: living with the complexities

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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3 Comments on “Public funding of autonomous universities: living with the complexities”

  1. paul martin Says:

    Professor Dieter Helm answered MPs in Westminster this morning by repeatedly stating that the consumer was paying too much for energy. The same might be said about HE – certainly south of the border – I am not so knowledgeable about Eire. But your final remark that such as the controls exercised by the state in staffing and remuneration are disadvantages is debateable. As Carillion, Bath University VC pay etc show the workers need protection against excesses of the executive suite.


    • That may be right, Paul, but this is a different issue. The Irish system controls pay at all levels, including junior staff, and also at times restricts the right of universities to hire staff. These are basic ingredients without which an institution really isn’t autonomous.

  2. Vince Says:

    I’m not sure Irish university managers know the heart of the civil servants.


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