Posted tagged ‘Ireland’

Universities and social change: the case of same-sex marriage

May 25, 2015

As most readers will undoubtedly know, Ireland voted on Friday last week on whether to amend the country’s Constitution (Bunreacht na hEireann, 1937) to include in the article on the family the following sentence:

‘Marriage may be contracted in accordance with law by two persons without distinction as to their sex.’

As was widely reported, two-thirds of the Irish electorate voted in favour of the amendment, thereby placing an obligation on the government and parliament (Oireachtas) to introduce legislation legalising and protecting same-sex marriage, alongside the continuing protection for heterosexual marriage.

The relatively decisive support given to gay marriage by the Irish voters is noteworthy, not least because the country has come a long way quickly. When I was an undergraduate student in Trinity College Dublin in the mid-1970s such a profound change would have seemed a very long way off, if indeed it seemed achievable in any timescale at all. However, TCD was probably the main hotbed for the emerging issue. One of its academic staff was David Norris, one of the few people at the time to have been brave enough to declare themselves gay and to bring the issue to the public’s attention. Back then the public was probably overwhelmingly hostile, but inside TCD David Norris was given the opportunity to make his case and to do so publicly.

Over the years that followed others in TCD, and other universities also, became vocal advocates for change. These included two academics destined to become Presidents of the state – Mary Robinson and Mary McAleese.

It should not be thought that universities are dedicated exclusively to progressive liberal values, nor should it be assumed that every novel idea championed by an academic should one day reflect the outlook of our national community. But it is right that higher education institutions should host and nurture opinions not at the time fashionable in wider society, and to protect those who wish to express unpopular views. In this case the big and welcome change last week carried through by Irish voters was made possible by the courage and persistence of academics, and by the university culture that gave them space to play their role. May this always be possible.

Opening new universities

September 8, 2014

In a global environment in which countries compete with each other for investment and for migrants with experience and skills, universities are a high value currency. There is little doubt that having a university brings significant benefits to a town, region or country, but only if the university’s credentials are right. Where that is not the case, the existence of a higher education institution of suspect quality or with other inadequacies can actually do some harm.

So if there is a proposal for the establishment of a new university, or for the granting of university status to an existing institution, what criteria should be used? This is currently a live issue in Ireland, where a number of existing institutes of technology (the latest being Athlone) have declared they will use a new statutory framework to apply for the status of a ‘technological university’. The Higher Education Authority, which manages this framework, has now announced the membership of the expert panel that will advise the Authority on ‘the viability and adequacy of plans for the creation of a technological university’ in each case.

This new Irish framework is seriously flawed, not because it allows for the establishment of new universities, but because it assumes that a ‘technological university’ is a recognised distinct type of higher education institution, without really making it clear why there should be such a separate category and without providing necessary assurances that the quality standards are the same as those that would apply to ‘normal’ universities. Most of the criteria are, at least on the face of it, similar to those one would expect any universities to meet. But the whole thing is undermined, and in my view fatally, by the absolute requirement that such applications can only come from what is described as a ‘consolidation of two or more institutions’. Why this should be a condition has never been satisfactorily explained, and it produces the result that one, high quality, institution cannot apply for technological university status, but if it joins another institution of lower quality it becomes eligible. Furthermore, apart from partnerships in the Dublin area, such joint bids will have to come from institutions located in different towns or regions, creating geographically separated multi-campus institutions that will find it very hard to create a coherent joint strategic direction.

A very good case can and should be made for institutional diversity in higher education, and there is not just room, but real demand, for universities that are, as one might put it, closer to the market and focused on the usability of their courses and research. But this should not be subject to different quality thresholds and should not involve the requirement of illogical and perhaps unworkable combinations. There is room for one or more new universities in Ireland; but the government should think again about how this is achieved.

Subverting Irish university autonomy

September 24, 2013

Over the past three or four years a significant change has been taking place in Irish higher education. Since the publication of the Hunt Report in 2011 (National Strategy for Higher Education), there has been a visible shift of public policy in the direction of a more centralised management of the system. The state now regards it as appropriate to set a national strategic purpose to be reflected in individual institutional plans, and also to manage what has become known as the higher education ‘landscape‘ – the latter being the configuration of the sector and the identity and management of the individual universities and colleges within it.

And now, with remarkably little public attention regarding the implications, the government has announced its intention of introducing in 2014 a new piece of legislation in the form of a Universities (Amendment) Bill, the purpose of which is declared to be ‘to give the Minister the power to require universities to comply with government guidelines on remuneration, allowances, pensions and staffing numbers in the University sector’.

The picture that is emerging from all this is an interesting one: the government and its agencies will set an overall strategic context for individual institutions, will determine in which institutional configuration they will operate, and will determine centrally their staffing and human resources policy. Someone may have arguments in favour of such a higher education policy, but it will have to be stated clearly that it is completely incompatible with any – even limited – understanding of university autonomy.

No major policy shift should be undertaken in any area without a clear understanding of how it will produce benefits; such an understanding does not exist in relation to current plans for Irish higher education. It is acknowledged throughout the world that autonomous universities perform much better and produce much greater benefits for their host countries. Ireland’s universities are now being directly threatened. There should, at the very least, be a vigorous debate, and the universities should be vocal in it.

Irish higher education: mind the funding gap

July 16, 2013

Towards the end of my time as President of Dublin City University, I calculated that over my ten-year term of office the funding received for educating each Irish and EU undergraduate student (the unit of resource) had, after allowing for inflation, decreased by around 40 per cent. With the exception of the student registration charge (which had by then become the ‘student contribution charge’), all funding came from the government. The actual amounts of funding had increased over the period, but this was because of a mixture of inflation and significantly increased student numbers; once you adjusted for that the picture was very different. Even during the affluent Celtic Tiger years the funding in real terms declined significantly.

When the credit crunch and the resulting recession began in 2008, it became clear very quickly that major funding cuts were about to hit the system. Some of this was absorbed through reductions in staff pay, but what was much more significant was the reduction in staff numbers, forced on the system through the notorious ’employment control framework’. The continuing squeeze on budgets has in the meantime also led to other dramatic effects, with universities having to face impossible decisions regarding staffing, library and technology resources, and other such vital parts of the infrastructure.

Nobody doubts that recent Irish governments have had to take very difficult decisions, and it would have been unrealistic to suggest that higher education should (or could) escape that. But it must be remembered that Ireland’s ability to generate either inward investment or indigenous entrepreneurship increasingly depends on a successful university sector. This is now at risk. It would be foolish to think that a starved sector enjoying half of the per capita funding of other OECD countries could compete with them for investment or for skilled leaders.

The problem for Ireland is that very few people are making this point explicitly (although there are some exceptions, including Dick Ahlstrom’s recent piece in the Irish Times). Does anyone know, or say, how much funding a student must attract for that student to be able to receive a quality education? In England Oxford University suggested to the Browne review that it was £16,000. Perhaps more realistically, an American study recently argued that the minimum quality threshold lay at $15,000 per student – roughly €11,500. Ireland’s funding is now very far below that.

Ireland is facing a crisis on a number of fronts, but right now the asset stripping of higher education is creating an additional problem that may make an economic recovery both less likely and much less sustainable. And most alarming of all is that all this is happening with very little public noise, perhaps in part because the system has been distracted by a very doubtful new framework of restructuring. If I were still working in Ireland, I would be very afraid.

The Irish higher education ‘landscape’

January 17, 2013

As part of the process that will, we are told, produce a newly reconfigured Irish higher education system, the Higher Education Authority (HEA) has produced another document pointing further in the direction of where it would like the system to go. In this latest document, entitled Completing the Landscape Process for Irish Higher Education, the HEA sets out its intentions as follows.

‘System reconfiguration is aimed at creating a reduced number of higher education institutions of more significant scale and critical mass in the best interests of students. A key objective is to protect the distinctive roles and mission of universities and technological institutes within the Irish system while delivering the quality outcomes in teaching, research and engagement for students and stakeholders envisaged in the National Strategy.’

In fairness to the HEA, its objectives have been stated repeatedly in previous documents and follow a clearly discernible path. It wants fewer higher education institutions; and in particular it wants mergers amongst the institutes of technology, the absorption of teacher training colleges into universities, and a much higher level of specialisation in all institutions including universities. It believes that this will remove or lessen inefficiencies and produce what it calls ‘scale’, or critical mass. It also wants regional clustering, so that institutions in the same general area (though ‘area’ is understood in a somewhat elastic way, as it seems for example to include the entire west coast of Ireland) form part of a coherent structure. It also wants the development of a centralised national strategy that will inform individual institutional direction. All of this is to lead to what the document describes as a ‘co-ordinated and consolidated higher education system’.

The objectives being pursued here have become part of the public narrative of higher education in Ireland, and are repeated by officials and politicians in a manner to suggest that they are obviously appropriate. But whether they really are appropriate, and certainly whether they are necessary, has not ever really been established through the presentation of anything that might count as evidence. Rather, a set of largely unproven assumptions – with some assumptions that have been shown to be highly questionable if not simply wrong, such as that of ‘scale’ – have taken on iconic status. They are driving policy making, and are threatening to create a new layer of bureaucratic control. They are set to replace the traditional principle of institutional autonomy, on the again quite unproven assertion that this no longer serves the interests of Irish higher education or society.

It would be unfair to suggest that all these plans are wrong. Coordinating institutional objectives with national priorities is potentially useful. Encouraging strategic collaboration is right. But the picture emerging here goes beyond that, and reveals a higher education ‘system’ that is structured to fit a centralised bureaucratic model.

The HEA has overall been a good friend of the higher education sector, but it has allowed itself to be persuaded that something is wrong where there are no real signs of anything untoward. In consequence attention that could usefully be directed to some much more obviously beneficial reform, particularly given the changing pedagogical and demographic trends of recent years, is now being focused on a structural reconfiguration that hardly seems called for and that could actually undermine innovation and creativity within the sector.

Probably this path is now set, and there are few signs that there is any resistance from the institutions themselves. I still doubt it is the right path, however. Furthermore, the journey down this path is beginning just as other countries, for example Germany, are moving in the opposite direction, as they have come to realise the importance of university autonomy. It’s a strange world.

Coming to grips – or not – with university autonomy

November 20, 2012

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.

Cruel principles?

November 15, 2012

Some readers commenting on my last post drew attention to the appalling news just in from Ireland, of the death of a woman in a Galway hospital, where she had been taken as she was experiencing a miscarriage. Medical staff, apparently, were unwilling to terminate her pregnancy even though the foetus was inevitably dying and the delay in forcing the delivery was placing the mother in jeopardy; in the event both mother and baby died. According to the report in the Irish Times, the patient, Ms Savita Halappanavar, was told that no termination could take place while there was still a foetal heartbeat because ‘this is a Catholic country’.

I have never believed that abortion is simply a human rights issue; it seems to me to be far more complex. But nonetheless what appears to have happened here is outrageous and horrible. As far as I know we have not heard yet from the hospital, so we don’t know for sure what the medical staff believed they were doing; nor have they confirmed that Ms Halappanavar was told what I have quoted above. But if it is all true, then so-called ‘pro life’ principles, which in any case seem often to have a curiously limited view of ‘life’ and of quality of life and which may be more about opposition to social liberalisation, are being conscripted into a campaign that in cases such as this just seems cruel.

One must absolutely accept that doctors and nurses sometimes have horrifyingly difficult decisions to take in extreme medical cases. But pro-life groups, and those who  allow themselves to be bullied by such groups into enacting or enforcing extreme laws, need to be reminded that life is complex, not simple, and that to elevate abstract principles above people is to abandon the values that make us civilised. It is time to ensure that whatever may have happened in Galway cannot happen again.


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