When I undertook the task in 2011 of chairing the review of higher education governance in Scotland (the report can be read here), one of the recurring themes in submissions made to us was the imperative of university autonomy. It was often remarked that the world’s top universities are all highly autonomous, and conversely that highly controlled and directed systems of higher education tend not to feature much in global rankings. This explains, for example, why at least until now German universities have generally not received much international recognition.
However, it became very clear to me that ‘autonomy’ meant different things to different people. For some, it was the ability of universities to maintain the integrity of their decision-making structures in the face of government intervention. To others, it was about the freedom of managerial action. To others again it was all about intellectual freedom.
This difficulty in nailing down autonomy was not a new problem to me. In 2010, just before my term of office as President of Dublin City University came to an end, I was present at a meeting at which Irish government officials resisted the idea that university autonomy was about the freedom of individual institutions to decide their own strategy. To them, autonomy was about the freedom of universities to choose the means by which to implement government strategy. When I put it to them that autonomy could only be meaningful if universities could decide their own strategic direction, I was told that such a view had not occurred to them.
On the other hand of course, where public money is used to fund higher education, it is not unnatural for the government to expect certain outcomes. The current focus in Scotland on delivering better access to higher education for the disadvantaged (which universities support) is an example.
So where is the line to be drawn? Probably not where it is currently being sketched into the picture in Ireland. Amongst the more worrying developments there is the now published report by the so-called ‘International Expert Panel’ on A Proposed Reconfiguration of the Irish System of Higher Education. This report has come up with what it calls ‘an optimum configuration of the system’, consisting of ‘a small number of large, fit for purpose autonomous institutions with the critical mass necessary to determine achievable and flexible missions.’ Not visibly attaching much meaning to the word ‘autonomous’, the panel suggests that this outcome cannot be achieved by voluntary means and must be forced on the system. Leaving aside entirely the very doubtful proposition that larger (‘critical mass’) institutions are likely to gain more global recognition (when Caltech, the world’s number 1 university, would, if placed in Ireland, be the smallest institution in the system), it is notable that the panel attached no significance to the desirability of strategic autonomy.
The Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairi Quinn TD, has indicated he is not in favour of these recommendations. But then again, the government has just issued a new Bill – the Universities (Amendment) Bill 2012 – which, according to an analysis by Brian Lucey in the Irish Times, will allow the Minister to extend government control over payments and salaries within universities. While restraint in payments made by universities to senior staff would undoubtedly have popular support, allowing governments to control this centrally tends, as the horrible Employment Control Framework has demonstrated in Ireland, to stifle initiative and undermine strategy.
University autonomy must be used wisely by the institutions, and must not undermine public confidence in their decision-making. But on the other hand, subjecting universities to central control is not the right response. Governments need to engage in constructive dialogue with higher education to determine how public priorities can be supported within a framework of accountable autonomy. There is no worthwhile alternative. A Soviet model of higher education is not the way forward.