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Universities (Amendment) Bill 2012

Posted by Francis O' Toole on November 21, 2012

The Bill is a knee-jerk 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 confront national and international challenges.

Slapping down bolshy universities may have populist appeal, but we should beware of Greeks bearing gifts. In that regard the 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 Higher Education Authority.

In reacting to them we need to decide what we want academia to provide for the State and how universities can best serve the common good. As in all things, proportionality is also worth striving for.

The main provisions of the heads of Bill are to issue directions to a university if there is concern about “a policy decision made by the Government or the Minister in so far as 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 inquire 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, to the Civil Service bureaucracy on Marlborough Street or its agents.

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 research is self-indulgent faffing about and that the facilities lie idle for most of the year.

None of these accusations survives 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 reduced funding and the growing contribution to knowledge and creativity.

Perversely, these 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 to be more aware of the delicate balance needed to manage intellectual organisations. Universities are about human capital and knowledge creation, similar to the goals of Apple and Google. In great part their capital walks out of the door every evening. 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.

Organisations 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 (that is, make academics think twice about attacking Government policies with awkward evidence) and make Ireland less attractive to international talent, something we need now more than ever.

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. Fees need to be supported by either a graduate tax or a properly functioning loan market.

In the interim, challenge university managers to lead their institutions. Give them the monies that the State deems an appropriate amount to subsidise research and education for the common good; then let them get on with their business.

Ireland will need smart people and nimble institutions to survive. The University (Amendment) Bill stifles both.

Brian Lucey is professor of finance at TCD

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