Posted tagged ‘Irish Universities Association’

Irish higher education and the quest for something better

September 29, 2014

During my ten years as an Irish university President, one of my recurring and deeply frustrating experiences was encountering politicians who had persuaded themselves that the university sector received too much funding, wasted resources and needed more control to resolve this problem. Two of the four Ministers for Education who held office during my tenure came into the job proclaiming that something was wrong with the universities. One of them decided to test his suspicions by introducing funding cuts in the middle of an economic boom, while the other declared he was establishing a ‘forensic audit’ to find out where all the money was being stashed away by the institutions. Both of them hinted they had postbags full of complaints from citizens about wasteful expenditure in the sector.

Throughout the decade the university Presidents robustly defended the universities, pointing out that they delivered excellent results on the back of per capita funding far below that available to institutions in other developed countries. Then came the recession, and in 2008 we were advised that cuts would come soon, and would be brutal. Salaries were cut and employment was controlled, student contributions went up and government funding was reduced significantly. Now, six or so years on, the chief executive of the Irish Universities Association, writing in the Irish Times, has said that government funding has over this period been reduced by ‘almost a third’, seriously affecting the student experience and university rankings. Perhaps a little confusingly, he also suggests that ‘through the dedication and hard work of both front and backline staff in the universities, quality, although at risk, has been maintained.’

It is very difficult for universities to make a case that a crisis threatens to engulf the system when they also suggest that cuts of 30 per cent have not compromised quality. Indeed that suggestion might convince long retired education ministers that they were right all along. Global rankings tend to attract media comment, but how much they really affect university fortunes could be debated. Even student/staff ratios generate much more excitement amongst lecturers than they aggravate students.

One of the problems is that few of those engaged in the higher education conversation have made a clear case as to what constitutes quality, and therefore what could be put at risk by inadequate resources.  The quality assurance industry built up over the past decade or so has focused on process rather than substance, and reports emerging from that system give few clues as to how close we may be to compromised educational standards. Saying that quality has been maintained gives little insight into what might happen if ‘quality’ were damaged or lost. Nor does it tell us much about what investment could do to raise standards and assure global competitiveness. Saying something like ‘if you give us more money we’ll ensure that what we’ve always done is performed to the highest level of quality’ won’t be persuasive if you’ve just said that without this money you’ve actually managed to achieve the same thing.

Irish higher education clearly does need more money, but it also needs new ideas and new models of delivering learning and research. It needs a narrative, a ‘story’. The IUA is an excellent and well-led organisation, and there is imaginative leadership in the universities. Generating this story is not a task that cannot be performed effectively.

Calls for more funding, or for other resourcing mechanisms including tuition fees, will make little headway as long as those who will take the decisions don’t really see what the new money will buy and why that should be bought. It is time to generate a narrative that says something about what higher education should be doing that would have the potential to transform the lives of those experiencing it and the fortunes of the country, beyond what has been delivered in the past. It would perhaps be better to stop talking about percentages, or resources, or processes, and to focus instead on what a new and maybe somewhat different framework of higher education can do for society. People need to be convinced that there is something better out there that deserves some money. Right now, I suspect most politicians and officials are persuaded that cuts have gone some way to reducing excess fat without seriously compromising quality, and that the impact of these cuts can and should be contained by a bigger dose of centralised controls: the worst of all possible worlds.

Academic freedom: response to IUA statement (Paddy Healy)

February 12, 2011

Last week the Irish Universities Association issued a statement on academic freedom, reproduced in this blog. Paddy Healy, Convenor of the Gathering for Academic Freedom, has now issued a response (below). There will also be a meeting on ‘academic freedom and campus dissent’, addressed by Paddy Healy and others, Tuesday, February 15 2011, in the William Jefferson Clinton Auditorium, UCD, Belfield.

The Irish Universities Association (IUA) issued a statement on February 4 in response to a call to defend the principle of tenure on which academic freedom is based. This call, signed by 160 academics, was published in the Irish Times on January 20.

We note that the IUA has no authority to speak on behalf of Irish universities. It is a private company of which the seven university presidents are directors.

In its response, the IUA could have given clear assurances that it was opposed to any changes to the relevant clauses in the Universities Act. As the law of the land trumps industrial relations processes, we would have taken considerable comfort from such a declaration.

As it is, however, the IUA makes no such declaration. Indeed,  the IUA statement is replete with ambiguity and dissimulation. Most remarkably, it suggests that the principle of tenure might be seen as protecting academics from dismissal for misconduct  though this is not the case.

The IUA statement is causing increased concern in the academic community.

Steve Hedley, Professor of Law at UCC and a signatory to the call, has given a detailed reply to the statement on the blog Ninth Level Ireland.

The IUA states:

‘What we must do as a foundation for that defence [of academic freedom-PH], is to distinguish between freedom and licence. This is what we are seeking to do in the proposed contractual provision which states that it is to be acknowledged that the freedoms which are contained in Section 14 of the Universities Act are to be exercised in the context of the framework of rights and obligations contained in the contract.’

It should be understood that the contract to which the IUA refers is not the existing contract but a new contract to be put in place pursuant to the Public Services Agreement (Croke Park Deal).

Stephen Hedley comments:

‘The other, and more pessimistic, interpretation [of the IUA statement-PH] is that academic contracts are to be read as limiting the guarantee in the Universities Act – in other words, that academic freedom should only exist to the extent that each academic’s contract allows for it. This is extremely worrying. Academic freedom is, in large part, freedom from university management – and so is not worth much if it can be removed by a simple clause in an employment contract, drafted by that same university management. I don’t know what is intended here; and I certainly hope that this reading is wrong. But if the object of the statement was to reassure, then it has failed in its object.’

On the question of tenure the IUA states:

‘Here, we are seeking to establish that tenure is consistent with the established corpus of employment law and, in that context, refers to the duration of contract … However, the concept of tenure dates from a time when employment law was much less well developed. We now have a national legal framework incorporating, inter alia, the Unfair Dismissals and Fixed Term Workers Acts which provide considerable protections to employees generally. We strongly support employment security for staff.’

Stephen Hedley comments:

‘With that introduction, the IUA statement gives a number of reasons why tenure is positively undesirable. Tenure is an “amorphous concept which somehow subsists in a parallel realm” to the rest of employment law; this “creates ambiguity, and at worst, creates the impression that tenure will be advanced to create an absolute prohibition on dismissal or sanction, even in the worst and thankfully extremely rare cases of misconduct”. … The solution is “to establish that tenure is consistent with the established corpus of employment law and, in that context, refers to the duration of contract”. This seems to mean that tenure, properly understood, should only mean that each academic’s contract lasts as long as it lasts – in other words, that “tenure” is to be all but meaningless, adding nothing to ordinary employment rights.’

To be clear: the signatories of the January 20 letter never suggested that tenure could or should preclude disciplinary procedures in cases of misconduct and/or breach of duty. Academics have never been ‘unsackable’ on foot of such allegations as some commentators and propagandists have claimed. Nor have they been absolutely free to exercise their academic freedom (or responsibility?) to defend academic values without fear or favour. As a number of documented Irish cases show, some of them have been subjected to harassment and intimidation for speaking out in defence of academic standards and intellectual integrity, even if they haven’t been subjected to the ultimate silencing, namely redundancy.

It is because tenure confers immunity from this ultimate abuse of power that it is internationally recognised as essential to academic freedom by UNESCO and by other international bodies such as Education International. And it is because academic freedom as currently protected by Irish law is such a fundamental principle of democracy that all repressive regimes have sought to eliminate or to limit that freedom.

Instead of allaying the concerns that we expressed in our original letter, the IUA response has heightened them.

Following persistent work by the IFUT Branch, the Board of Trinity College has already issued a declaration in support of academic freedom and tenure in December 2010

We therefore call now on the governing authorities of all academic institutions to dissociate themselves from the IUA statement and to issue a similar declaration.

IUA Statement on the Croke Park Public Service Agreement

February 5, 2011

This is the full text of the statement by the Irish Universities Association on the implementation of the Public Service Agreement 2010-2014 (the Croke Park agreement) in the universities.

Introduction

The purpose of this paper is to clarify the universities’ position in respect of our implementation plan under the’Croke Park’ Public Service Agreement (PSA).

Background

The Public Service Agreement (PSA) was formulated against a backdrop of the worst financial crisis in the history of the state. The Agreement is aimed at improving efficiency and quality so that public services can continue to be delivered with the reduced resources available to the Exchequer. Since the conclusion of the agreement, we know that the state’s financial position has worsened considerably, leading to the agreement with the EU, ECB and IMF, of the four year national recovery plan. The current position re-emphasises the need to implement the PSA. This has been stressed by the Chair of the National Implementation Body.

Concerns Expressed about the University Plans The PSA explicitly provides for a review of academic contracts and this has been further emphasised in national policy by the recently published HE Strategy. The focus of the concerns expressed to date is that the provisions of contractual revision represent an attack on academic freedom and tenure and thus the very essence of the university.

In our view this is emphatically not the case.

These proposals must be viewed in the context of both the wider strategic stance of the universities, and the real intent underlying their specific content. These two aspects are elaborated on below.

Overall strategic position of the universities

There is a widely held view that universities which have a strong capacity for self determination are both more efficient and effective. We are fully committed to maintaining this position, and, indeed enhancing it. We made our position clear in our interactions with, and inputs to, the Higher Education Strategy group and the resultant Strategy (National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030) reflects this.

The Strategy does discuss at length the balance between institutional self determination and accountability to the state and society in general. It is appropriate that this be discussed, not least given the current crisis. There has been deep-rooted societal questioning of the causes of our economic collapse. This has included reflection on the failures of our financial regulatory system and the functioning of our entire administrative and political system. Given the depth of the crisis, the universities have sought to play their part in response. This has been reflected in the universities agreeing to cut staff numbers by over six percent while continuing to respond to the demand for additional student places.

In summary, the universities are committed to the principle of self determination and to enhancing this over time.

Content of the PSA Plan

In line with the overall strategic position outlined above, it must be stressed that the theme underlying the plan is accountability and not control. As regards the proposed contractual revisions these have been driven by a desire to identify good practice across the universities and to consolidate this on a sectoral basis. In terms of the specific provisions, it is worth highlighting the major ones and elaborating on their intent and the thinking underlying them, as follows:

Attendance/hours of work

Attendance: this is stated as a requirement to be in attendance at the university during the normal working week and for the duration of the college year which is 12 consecutive calendar months.

It will be apparent that there has been considerable questioning of academic hours of work in recent times. At the Public Accounts Committee the University Presidents and IUA strongly defended the record of University staff and firmly rejected simplistic definitions of academic hours based on contact time. In our inputs to the HE Strategy process, and at the PAC, we rejected efforts to impose a requirement for fixed hours within the academic contract. We believe this would inhibit flexibility and ultimately compromise the widespread excellent commitment which staff have demonstrated.

However, we believe it is reasonable to set down minimum standards in respect of attendance as outlined above. Some have suggested that this is to have the effect of physically shackling academics to the university and banning remote working etc. We want to stress that this is categorically not the case. Our concern is fundamentally about accountability for work and, in practice, this provision is simply to consolidate a framework which protects against cases of obvious abuse of the freedoms which currently exist and which we support. Thankfully, those abuses are extremely rare, but it cannot be denied that they have occurred.

Tenure

Here, we are seeking to establish that tenure is consistent with the established corpus of employment law and, in that context, refers to the duration of contract.

It has been suggested that the above represents a concerted attempt to casualise university employment. Again, this is emphatically not the case.

However, the concept of tenure dates from a time when employment law was much less well developed. We now have a national legal framework incorporating, inter alia, the Unfair Dismissals and Fixed Term Workers Acts which provide considerable protections to employees generally. We strongly support employment security for staff.

In some of the commentary, the concepts of tenure and academic freedom have been conflated, with the implication that any contextualization of tenure will be used to attack academic freedom by facilitating the dismissal of staff who express unpopular ideas.

This is a completely wrong characterisation as will be reflected in the section on academic freedom, where we vigorously uphold and support freedom of thought and enquiry.

We do not believe that it is helpful to have an amorphous concept of tenure which somehow subsists in a parallel realm to that corpus of law. Such subsistence at best creates ambiguity, and at worst, creates the impression that tenure will be advanced to create an absolute prohibition on dismissal or sanction, even in the worst and thankfully extremely rare cases of misconduct. The fostering of such an impression is enormously damaging to the public reputation of the universities, to our desire for continued and enhanced self determination, and it does no service to the vast majority of staff within the university.

Academic Freedom

The capacity of universities to develop new knowledge and to share that knowledge within the collective community of learners and with the wider society is essential: in the literal sense, it is the essence of what defines a university. We have consistently defended this.

We have firmly and repeatedly rejected the notion of universities as mechanistic institutions which exist to supply static units of learning to a cohort of passive consumers. Most recently we gave an extensive presentation to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills showcasing the range of innovation and high quality demonstrated by our universities and emphasizing the contribution of our academics as independent thinkers and contributors to national and international debate.

We are unambiguously committed to academic freedom of thought and enquiry.

We are equally committed to our academics’ freedom to continuously vary what is taught as the universe of knowledge expands. We believe that the continual testing of what is held to be true is essential for all in the community of learners.

There can and should be no doubt of this and we will defend this position.

What we must do as a foundation for that defence, is to distinguish between freedom and licence.

This is what we are seeking to do in the proposed contractual provision which states that it is to be acknowledged that the freedoms which are contained in Section 14 of the Universities Act are to be exercised in the context of the framework of rights and obligations contained in the contract.

As articulated in this paper, the obligations element is simply a framework that contains accountability requirements which reflect the excellent practice of the vast majority of academic staff and which also safeguard against those cases of abuse which, though extremely rare, have the capacity to undermine public confidence in the universities.

Public Confidence

It is worth considering further the importance of public confidence. Universities have an essential role within society in the creation of new knowledge and in challenging conventional wisdom and accepted truths. However, if this role is to be effective, universities must have public trust and confidence.

Trust and confidence are qualities which are earned; universities have no intrinsic right to them. Intellectual freedom which exists in the absence of such trust and confidence would be a debased currency of little or no value. It would reduce universities to voices crying in the wilderness, dependent on society for their subsistence but powerless to influence it.

Conclusion

In summary, the PSA plans are designed to reinforce all that is good in our university system and provide for the further enhancement of our self determination.

They allow Universities to maximise their traditional and properly-valued contribution to society, as well as making a real contribution to national recovery.

Their implementation will enhance our reputation and strengthen public trust and confidence in our institutions.

In consequence they will strengthen our voice and our position in society to the benefit of, students, society and staff alike.

 

 

“Public gathering” called on academic freedom

January 20, 2011

The Irish academic news resource website, 9thlevelireland, yesterday carried a letter signed by 160 academics calling for a meeting to discuss threats, as the signatories see it, to academic freedom across Irish higher education. This meeting, which is described as being ‘open to all academics’, is to be held on Saturday, January 22, at 2pm, in the Gresham Hotel in Dublin.

The initiative for this was taken by Paddy Healy, a lecturer in the Dublin Institute of Technology and a former President of the Teachers Union of Ireland, which inter alia organises staff in the Institutes of Technology. In his blog he has expanded on the reasons for his fears concerning academic freedom. These are based principally on the agreement reached last year between the Irish government and the public sector trade unions (the Croke Park agreement), under which various changes in working practice and in contracts of employment are to be negotiated. In the blog Paddy Healy publishes a document said to have been issued by NUI Galway setting out proposed changes and reforms. As far as I am aware, the university has not made any public comment on this, so I cannot say whether the document represents its position, or what its aims are in any negotiations that may be taking place. But if we take the document at face value, it clearly envisages a very different kind of employment contract and higher levels of staff flexibility.

From what I can gather, the process of initiating the reform processes envisaged under the Croke Park agreement has been left by the Irish Universities Association to individual institutions, and there is no sector-wide position on what changes might be involved. This may be a risky approach, and it would be hard to imagine that very different contractual frameworks or terms of employment could be sustained between the Irish universities and colleges. Not having a common approach also makes it difficult to avoid rumours and fears circulating through the system. I cannot help feeling that a more open, nation-wide discussion process would make more sense.

On the other hand, it would also be a mistake for academics to resist all change, or to allow the impression to emerge that this is their position. There continue to be very good reasons for preserving intellectual autonomy and academic freedom, but academics must also be aware of, and show sensitivity to, the general movement towards greater accountability in society. The risk is always that accountability is seen as meaning bureaucratic control, and to avoid that being the result of current reforms academics, like the universities, need to engage in constructive discussions. As part of this process, resistance to measures such as measuring of full economic costs is hugely counter-productive and damaging to the staff position. A radicalisation of these discussions on either side can easily prompt wider public hostility towards higher education, an outcome that would put the entire system at risk.

All parties involved in this should proceed with some care, and with as much openness as possible. Rumour is the enemy of success.

Unitrin College Dublin?

March 6, 2009

According to reports in both the Irish Times and the Irish Independent today, Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin are in talks aimed at creating closer links, with a degree of integration of their research activities in particular. It is reported, and I imagine accurately, that the Department of the Taoiseach, and perhaps the Minister for Finance, were involved in discussions leading to this development.

Both newspapers indicate that the other five universities – including my own therefore, DCU – are likely to be ‘infuriated’ (Irish Independent), or set for a ‘furious reaction’ (Irish Times). Clearly I cannot speak for the other institutions, but I can announce here that I am much more relaxed than that. On a pro rata basis (i.e. per member of staff), DCU draws in more research funding than either of the two institutions who are the subject of the report, and we will cope with this development without too much fury or worry; it may even help us to put into relief the rather more innovative nature of DCU and the potential of its national and international linkages.

Nevertheless, what is a matter for concern is that the Government has established a strategic review process (launched yesterday, as reported in this blog), but at the same time appears to be running quite separate strategic decision-making processes that will create a whole list of faits accomplis before this review is even properly under way; and that the two colleges concerned seem to be going along with that. And furthermore, it needs to be stated emphatically that the Irish system of supporting and funding research has been built up carefully to ensure that all decisions on funding are based solely on the excellence of the proposal, in a transparent manner. If there were any deviation from this – for example, if there were any talk of ringfenced funding for this partnership – it would completely undermine that principle and with it the integrity of the system. I am assuming that this is not intended.

For all that, I wish the two colleges well – excellence in higher education is an objective we all share. But we need to ensure that we are not dividing the sector up into different groups, which will make national cooperation for the benefit of Ireland much more difficult. And we need to be vigilant that we are not fatally undermining the role of the Irish Universities Association in the process.

Interesting times ahead!

So what does a President do?

June 23, 2008

Today I attended the quarterly meeting of the Irish Universities Association (IUA). Until 2005, this body was called the ‘Conference of Heads of Irish Universities’, known widely by its acronym CHIU (which everyone pronounced ‘chew’). During the current decade, the IUA has increasingly found a role for itself, and has coordinated the universities in their approach to various issues such as quality, funding, capital investments, and so forth. The IUA operates largely through the various university officers, and one university always occupies the chair (annually in rotation). The IUA Council (which was meeting today) consists of all the Presidents (or in TCD’s case, the Provost).

I have to confess that I am the senior university President in Ireland – by which I mean that I have been in office longest. I have seen a few Presidents come and go, and I guess every one of them has had a slightly different approach to the role. But then again, what is the role? We have got used to talking about Presidents as ‘chief officers’ (the term used in the Universities Act 1997), and often they are compared to corporate CEOs. But then again, universities are remarkably complex organisations, and contain strong expectations of collegiality and shared decision-making – as, in fairness, do many modern business corporations.

Traditionally the Head of a university occupied what might often have seemed a largely ceremonial role. While they would experience a good deal of deference in personal interaction, they could not expect much success if they tried to exercise command-style management. In fact, it could be quite difficult to identify where real decision-making power would lie. Before I joined DCU I worked in two universities, and I was never able to discover where the centre of decision-making was.

Many external stakeholders – including the government and industry – have expected universities to reform to the point where institutional strategy and efficient decision-making would become possible. But that has still left a fair amount of uncertainty as to what a President’s role should be.

I sometimes meet groups of visiting schoolchildren when they come to DCU, and occasionally I amuse myself by asking them what they think my job entails. Hardly any of them can even guess – although recently one young girl wondered if I were a ‘tour guide’. Maybe that is not a bad way of looking at it. We are on a tour of learning and discovery, and within the necessary academic autonomy there is room for some strategic guidance. The President – or at least this President – needs to represent the university to its external partners and stakeholders, and needs to ensure that the institution is internally coordinated and strategically focused on its opportunities. In one of my next posts on this blog I may describe my ‘typical’ day a little.

In the end, I doubt there is one model for this, any more than there is one ‘correct’ model for a corporate CEO; I know that we’re different. Different university Heads will have a variety of approaches. But what we all need to have in common is to recognise that what makes a university great is the work and dedication of its faculty and staff, and the qualities and achievements of its students and graduates.