An interesting – if, for some of us, depressing – feature of recent discussions on the funding of higher education has been the fact that there appear to be many people out there who, frankly, don’t think much of the universities. The Minister for Education and Science may be one of these people; he has launched, or rather he says he will launch, his ‘forensic audit’ of the sector, which in itself is a rather loaded term, suggesting that he suspects we do not make good use of our resources. But if he holds that view, he is certainly not alone. Widely held views include that universities are bad at managing their funds, allow systemic under-performance of staff, over-pay the academics (and in particular senior academics and officers), allow staff to avoid student contact, carry out too much research at the expense of teaching, fail to monitor quality adequately – and so on. This is backed up in media comment from time to time, as for example here. Because of all this, cutting university funding may be seen as justifiable.
Of course I would not suggest that all is perfect in the universities, but for anyone who spends any amount of time in any of them it would be hard to conclude that the above picture properly describes how they operate. I am not going to enter a defence of our institutions here (I may come back to that, however). Rather I am left to wonder why there really is nobody who offers a contrary view, apart from representatives of the sector itself (who of course may be taken to have a vested interest). For example, industry representatives in some contexts regularly affirm the importance of the Irish universities to our future, but absolutely no representative of the business community has come out to support the sector over the past weeks.
The answer probably lies with us. As institutions, we have I think not been good enough at making our case, and at explaining what we do and have done. We are not adequately and appropriately engaging in public debate, and too often we are wrong-footed by unfortunate stories of under-performance or questionable practice, stories which are not in themselves typical of what we do for society. University heads themselves, myself included, may need to think a little more also about how we appear in the public eye, and how good we are at representing the interests of our institutions, both in what we say and in what we do.
We have to conclude that, however well (as I would argue) we have been developing the sector in the interests of the nation, we have not been as effective as we need to be in articulating that and supporting our words with appropriate evidence. We need to think again, because if we do not have public support we cannot succeed as universities, and if we don’t succeed Ireland will have a much smaller chance of getting out of its current economic difficulties and returning to growth and prosperity.