Posted tagged ‘Comptroller and Auditor General’

Just deserts?

September 19, 2010

It has been one of those times when universities have been in the news, and you wish they hadn’t been. The Comptroller and Auditor General has issued  a report on universities, widely covered in the media, including articles in the Irish Times and the Irish Independent in which he has described bonus payments and other benefits awarded by some universities to staff outside of the authorised scales. Thankfully DCU got no mention, as indeed we were always very careful in my time to stay within the rules. But some others were heavily criticised.

I won’t defend any particular practices or payments here (and for the avoidance of doubt, I am no longer receiving a president’s salary), but I will say that the current rules don’t make sense. They prohibit payments outside of public service salary scales. This makes it very difficult to recruit competitively and to reward performance, but ironically they have this effect in particular when it comes to ‘ordinary’ staff, whether academic or support staff. They can be more easily circumvented when it comes to very senior staff.

It is my view that universities need to be given the right to determine salary scales independently of state regulation, but subject to proper mechanisms for doing so. There should be appropriate remuneration committees with independent members that undertake this task – doing so will make universities more competitive, but will also ensure integrity in the process. Right now we appear to have the worst of all worlds.

Higher education: measuring success

February 10, 2010

On June 11, 2009, the Oireachtas Public Accounts Committee assessed (amongst other things) the allocation of money to and by Science Foundation Ireland. At the end of the session the Comptroller and Auditor General, Mr John Buckley, reflected briefly on how one might assess whether the state is getting an adequate return from the investment in research carried out in universities. This is how he summarised the issue:

The challenge is to manage commercialisation such that there is a return on the State investment. This applies to the university sector where there is a need to ensure the process of protecting intellectual property rights and licensing and so on are in place and exploiting research outputs to ensure they are optimised. Then there is the level of industry or industrial promotion. The challenge here is to ensure there is a pay-off for State assistance and investment in research and development. The point is that this pay-off will be increased to the degree that it is linked with commercialisation and market awareness.

There is very little in that statement to argue with, but it needs to be said that in political debates in particular there is often an impatience with what some might regard as the rather vague metrics offered as justification for research investment. The politician’s instinct is always to look for jobs, and to look for them in the here and now. Having got used to sums invested in the IDA producing employment in a short time frame, they expect university research to do the same. But as I have noted previously in this blog, the economic impact of research is often in the job creation that it encourages third parties to make in the shorter term, and in the commercialisation impact in the much longer term. But it is dangerous to look for a ‘pay-off’ in any direct way in the short term. To that extent, universities should not encourage such misleading analysis by themselves offering the prospects of jobs in larger numbers directly created by university research, as this promotes a misunderstanding of why research should be funded.

But even when we assess university degree programmes, how do we measure success? The number of students admitted into higher education? The number of successful graduates? The number of access students? The ‘value added’ of improving results (which are sometimes taken as evidence of ‘dumbing down’, perhaps perversely)? Student satisfaction? Foreign direct investment in areas where graduates provide skills?

It seems clear to me that we are living in an age where everything that is funded is assessed in terms of whether the funded activities satisfy key performance indicators and can therefore be seen to provide value for money. This is an understandable approach, but its application to higher education is complex. We probably cannot – and probably should not – avoid this movement, but we need to develop a much clearer approach as to what indicates that investment in higher education has provided an appropriate return to the taxpayer. We may want to say that the return is vital but (literally) immeasurable: for example that it is demonstrated in an enlightened, skilled, intelligent, entrepreneurial, cultured and adaptable population. But that may not satisfy the spirit of the age that wants greater accountability in a more direct sense. So as a sector we should lead in developing an understanding of how what we do can be justified in such a spirit. This may now be one of our most urgent tasks.