The bleak future of the Irish university

Tue, May 1, 2012, 01:00

TOM GARVIN, emeritus professor at University College Dublin, details the unfortunate push of the Irish university system towards a more commercialised, bureaucratic, almost Orwellian vision

UNIVERSITY COLLEGE DUBLIN was a semidemocratised institution until about 10 years ago. Since then its representative structures have been dismantled. Furthermore, despite much chat about synergies, the channels by which academic staffers normally communicated with each other were closed down. There is no hard-copy phone book in the modern UCD, and it is possibly the only major university in the English-speaking world not to have such a phone book.

The annual President’s Report, a large book that routinely reported the publications and other professional activities of the staff, ceased to be issued. The annual staff listings, which told you who worked where and when, also ceased to appear. The faculties, with their internal representative structures and freedom of speech, were closed down and replaced with Soviet-style top-down “councils” that passively received and passed on instructions from on high. Attendance levels at these local kangaroo parliaments were and are very low. Departments were merged according to an ideological doctrine that claimed bigger was better.

An extraordinary managerial rhetoric evolved, and in a few years a tide of nonsense on stilts pervaded the university. An indescribable grey philistinism increasingly characterised the public culture of the college, and a hideous management-speak drowned out coherent communication. Within a few years, nonacademic staff in UCD far outnumbered academic staff.

Prof Gerard Casey of UCD’s school of philosophy put it marvellously in 2006: “At present there are those who ask: ‘Why cant the university be more like business?’ (Oddly enough not many ask the equally pertinent question why businesses can’t be more like universities!)”

In this atmosphere it should come as no surprise that the many and varied schemes that have been proposed for the rejuvenation of business eventually trickle down to the academy. Among the army of initialisms that are known to the cognoscenti, we can find PPBS, MBO, ZBB, TQM/CQI and BPR, which stand, respectively, for planning programming budgeting system, management by objectives, zero-base budgeting, total quality management/continuous quality improvement, and business process re-engineering. Two additional schemes whose names have not been turned into initialisms are strategic planning and benchmarking. The hulks of such schemes litter the shorelines of academia.

We all know, to our collective cost, that “benchmarking” in the Irish public service was a huge fiction fed by the hysteria of the Celtic Tiger in its final phase to rationalise giving inflated wage increases to public-sector workers. These increases were rationalised as reflecting an alleged increased productivity.

Similarly, in the newly governmentalised academy, an obsession with money and a peculiarly irrational form of benchmarking known pejoratively as “box-ticking” replaced any real interest in, or concern for, intellectual scholarship and blue-sky research.

Third-level education in Ireland went, in half a century, from the belief that higher education had nothing to do with economic development to the equally absurd assumption that higher education was about nothing except economic development: from one rather foolish barbarism to another. The initialism nonsense uttered by senior administrators was designed to camouflage this intellectual tragedy.

George Orwell grasped the political importance of nonsense long ago, in his still scary satire, Nineteen Eighty-Four. He referred to it as Duckspeak. The essence of Duckspeak is to lower the intellectual level of the conversation, spread confusion and allow the speaker to get away with something. Duckspeak was a refined version of the official language of Oceania, Newspeak. A good Duckspeaker could change his party line in mid-sentence while being quite unaware that the second half of the sentence contradicted everything in the first half. This ability was very much valued by the ruling Party. Newspeak was specifically designed to eliminate independent thought, and was essentially an impoverished version of the English language. “Newspeak was designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought.”

There is a general problem, particularly in the English-speaking world, of commercialisation of the universities. One of the human race’s greatest inventions, the university has at its core the idea of the free exercise of intelligent and well-educated people who have the secular equivalent of a vocation to the work to which they have turned their talents and effort. Since the takeover of many universities by commercially minded people, this central core is under threat. The pressure to engage in applied, intellectually derivative and financially profitable research at the expense of traditional free inquiry has intensified.

Intellectual derivativeness is always a symptom of cultural provincialism. Great universities, almost by definition, do not suffer from this problem, while second-rank – but worthy – universities that are being pushed into provincialism do. Researchers are being required by bureaucrats to specify what they are going to discover before the money to do the research is made available. Pablo Picasso’s famous remark that “If I knew what I was going to do, what would be the point of doing it?” is apposite.

In 2010, Sean Duke pointed out in the Sunday Times that the Irish attempt to use scientists to produce commercially viable products betrays an official incomprehension of the nature of scientific research. He contrasted this with the Israeli scientific-research programme, which is far more successful than its Irish counterpart, as simply funding “the best researchers and [giving] them what they need”.

The Israelis reportedly do not impose “conditions” on researchers by demanding to know in advance how they will produce commercial results. The research is at the heart of what is done, and the Israeli authorities are clear-sighted.

Duke wrote: “The greatest scientific discoveries come by funding the best people, not by trying to wedge people into categories that bureaucrats have decided might produce an economic return. Penicillin was discovered by Alexander Fleming when he failed to disinfect cultures of bacteria and returned to find the bacteria dead and contaminated with penicillin moulds. This is how science works. It is not linear and cannot be controlled . . . Great discoveries are often made from obscure work.”

The essential idea that knowledge is an end in itself has become alien to some elite opinion in Ireland. Greed and utilitarianism have threatened to destroy free intellectual inquiry. There are powerful people in our country who dislike free inquiry and would like to strangle it. The argument is that free inquiry is self-indulgent and should not be supported by the taxpayer. Real research and the writing of books are seen as pointless.

Knowledge being an end itself is disregarded, and the further central idea that knowledge is a public good is lost. The further proposition that free research encourages detached, honest and penetrating thinking about very practical matters is also in danger of being lost. The upshot is a loss of public wisdom. This entails the growth of silliness and the destruction of imagination. The self-destruction of Fianna Fáil in 2011 is a spectacular example of just such a lack of wisdom.

The idea that the appetite for knowledge and understanding is a good in itself has always existed in Ireland, despite historical hostility from some power-holders. The connected idea that intellectual leadership should be in the hands of the most intellectually accomplished is ceasing to be understood. Books are seen by some as obsolete, and there were attempts in the past 10 years to impose a thing called “the science model” on disciplines as unlike physical science as the discipline of history. Historians generally work alone or in small groups but form “invisible colleges” that typically connect universities in different countries. They are not “lone scholars”, in the wildly inaccurate official phrase. The scholar may indeed write an article for a peer-reviewed journal, but the mature scholar will almost certainly express himself or herself at book-length scale. In the past 10 years, bureaucratisation reached grotesque levels. Prof Michael Laffan said in 2010 that academic staff were “throttled” by managers and bureaucrats, “some of whom do little except hinder us academics from getting on with our teaching and research”.

Another aspect of all this “modernisation” was extravagance. At least €12 million was spent on plans for an insane Gateway project at Belfield, involving acres of concrete, a multistorey car park, a string of lakes, a “hospitality centre”, a hotel and many other nonacademic irrelevancies. It is patently obvious that Gateway will never happen.

Prof Tom Dunne, in his extraordinary memoir, Rebellions, notes that the “reforms” in the universities directly threaten his own subject, history and even Irish collective historical memory. An anti-intellectual and pseudo-commercial bullying has attempted to replace intellectual freedom, a freedom that the nation itself desperately needs, whether or not it realises it. A “fudging of the more abrasive and unpleasant aspects of our past . . . chimed with the new prosperity and philistinism of the Celtic Tiger era, which accelerated the erosion of the memory of the troubles and transformed our universities on business lines”. Academics were increasingly expected to obey the instructions of their managers rather than their own trained intelligences.

History helps you. Back in 1957, a well-known Irish-American academic, JV Kelleher, spotted this enduring characteristic of Irish political culture. He argued in the American periodical Foreign Affairs that a lack of intellectualism among Irish political leaders was almost literally killing the entire country. We are in danger of repeating the mistakes of the 1950s on a much larger scale. Academic freedom must be restored and asserted, and the attempt to commercialise Irish universities must be brought to an immediate end. Staff morale, historically at a very low ebb, must be restored quickly. The management of Irish universities must be put back into the hands of academics. The internal structure of the universities must be democratised so that the leaders are informed by their academics and their students. The alternative is the increasing intellectual dullness of the universities. This would be a great and silent tragedy.

Extracted from Degrees of Nonsense: The Demise of the University in Ireland, edited by Dr Brendan Walsh of DCU (Glasnevin Publishing)