This is an significantly extended version of an OpEd published by myself and Charles Larkin (whose name appears missing) in the Irish Times.
The Universities (Amendment) Bill 2012 is a shutting of the stable door after the horse has bolted and the stable sold off to a developer. It is kneejerk reaction by regulators who have failed to keep time with the pace of change in modern tertiary education, with changing educational markets, or with the balance of accountability and flexibility needed to successfully confront national and international challenges. While slapping down bolshy universities may have populist appeal, we should beware of Greeks bearing gifts. In that regard, the present proposals are a transparent attempt by the civil service to take control of the sector by plugging university policy into a centralised and dirigiste Civil Service model, and to neuter both Governing Authorities and the HEA. Irish universities used, prior to the existence of the HEA, be controlled by the Dept of Education, an unhappy time for both sides.
The core issues driving these radical proposals are payments of unauthorised allowances and an alleged breach of the Employment Control Framework in respect of promotions. In reacting to them, we need to decide what we want academia to provide for the State and how universities as institutions can best serve the common good. As in all things proportionality is also worth striving for. In an environment where universities are being placed front and center in the drive for “the smart economy” we might want to consider if command and control from bureaucrats with neither empathy for nor practical experience of these institutions is a good idea. As in so much of the education sphere the government is sending mixed messages – we want a knowledge economy but cut back on science teaching at lower levels, we want a world class university system but spend less than the OECD average on tertiary education (52k over the college span versus OECD average of 57k and EU average of 62k), we want to widen educational access but end up with no effect from “free fees”, we want more international students but make the visa and immigration process distinctly unfriendly … And now we want to have an innovative and responsive sector under the control of the civil service. To be charitable, the evidence to date for the civil service to take on board change and to assimilate rapidly changing environments is poor.
Take the ECF issue. Universities employ thousands of highly qualified internationally mobile staff. When promotion and retention decisions have to be made quickly in a fast moving and often volatile environment, there are always chances of bureaucratic feathers being ruffled. Promotion, retention and appointment must be undertaken at the pace of the needs of the students and research funders and not at the pace of the bureaucrat. At this stage it is clear that employment structures in their broadest sense need to be designed to work for the next decade and not simply in response to legacy issues that have already been disposed of.
The main provisions of the Heads of Bill are to issue directions to a university if there is concern regarding “a policy decision made by the Government or the Minister in so far it relates to the remuneration or numbers of public servants employed in that university, or a collective agreement entered into by the Government or the Minister”. There is also provision for the Minister to send in the troops in the form of an “investigator” to enquire into any of these matters, regardless of whether any cause for concern has been established. This can lead to a transfer of functions away from the universities to the Minister; or even more worryingly (since this is designed to function under the rubric of the Public Service Management Act) to the civil service bureaucracy in Marlborough Street or its agents. What is to stop a functionary deciding to engage in their own “merger mania”? Worse, what is to stop a future minister deciding to swap around bits and pieces of colleges to their own shortterm political benefit? We have a long and inglorious history of pork barrelling and local politics trumping national strategy and should be leery of giving any politician power to engage in such.
Many commentators on university education view it as essentially undergraduate focused and through a dimly recalled lens of their own experiences.Part of what drives this desire for control is the thinly disguised belief that universities are really secondary schools for young adults, that academics are lazy charlatans, that most non industry applied focused research is self-indulgent faffing about, and that the facilities lie idle most of the year. None of these accusations survive the barest scrutiny and the 2010 Comptroller and Auditor General report on Irish universities states that the sector provides good value for money under difficult conditions. That value for money is seen in the education provided to record numbers of students with reducing Exchequer funding and the growing contribution to knowledge and creativity. Perversely, these actual achievements are regularly praised by Government while at the same time, the fabric of the proposed legislation seeks to undermine them.
In this respect, the Government needs to try be more aware of the delicate balance needed to manage intellectual organizations. Universities are about human capital and knowledge creation, similar to Apple and Google. In great part their capital walks out the door every evening. Ideally, the walk (or telecommute) back the following day. Few people would think it a good idea to impose the management structures of 1920s Ford on Apple, but the Government is proposing such a course of action with its universities. The dead hand of Frederick Taylor casts a much longer shadow than one might think feasible. Knowledge organizations are different and blindly applying a civil service approach to running universities will undermine tenure (making academics more vulnerable than civil servants), change the character of academic freedom (i.e. cause academics to think twice about attacking Government policies with awkward evidence) and make Ireland more unattractive to international talent, something we need now more than ever. Machine bureaucracies, which is what universities both internally and as a sector, are but one form of organizational structure – and probably the worst suited to universities.
We only need to look across the Irish Sea to see what a command and control approach to higher education policy looks like. The Minister for Education for Wales Leighton Andrews has used his powers under the Education (Reform) Act 1988 to radically reorganize the higher education landscape with institutions being faced with stark choices of merging and/or being dissolved and face crippling financial cuts if they do not bow to the will of the Minister. That is a system without tenure, without autonomy and at the beck-and-call of parish-pump politics. It is little wonder that Wales’ higher education sector suffers from poor academic output indicators.
A win-win is needed – universities need to be freed to do their job and increase student numbers and experience success and failure – that means we need to have an adult conversation about fees. It is good that the discussion has moved from being galmost “the issue that dare not speak its name” to being front and center. Fees need to be supported either by a graduate tax or a properly functioning loan market that is totally unlike that of the US where debt and costs have been allowed to explode due to a combination of bad regulation and poor cost controls within universities. In the interim, challenge university managers to lead their institutions. Managerialism is not the solution: our ongoing experiment with the HSE should be adequate proof of that. Give them the monies that the state deems an appropriate to subsidize research and education for the common good – then let them get on with their business. If the impunity of the creators of this economic crisis not being brought to book has caused a concern about responsibility then that is perfectly fine: but making people, organizations and institutions responsible is the solution. Creating a thicket of managerial requirements will just encourage lobbying, rent seeking and the creation of a sclerotic state. Worse still, it will result in more crises and more attempts to lock the stable door after the horse has bolted. Ireland will need smart people and nimble institutions to survive the next few years. The University (Amendment) Bill stifles both.