Who should be in command and control of higher education?
The higher-education institutions are going to have to cut another €25 million from their collective funding due to Budget provisions, but that is nothing new. The State’s percentage share in the cost of running our third-level sector has been in decline for years. Yet if this withdrawal of funding by the State persists it won’t take too many years before it becomes a minority shareholder in the funding of these institutions.
Does this make a difference? Can’t the universities dig up the shortfall using their own money from philanthropists and research awards and bequests? It certainly does make a difference if the State expects to continue to be a decision-maker in how the third-level sector is run.
Currently the Department of Education and Skills calls all of the important shots related to the running of the third-level sector, even down to the number of staff an institution is allowed to have. In the absence of tuition fees, the institutions have to chase any non-Exchequer cash they can find to help fill gaps and keep things running.
University College Dublin president Dr Hugh Brady aptly described it recently as “State command and control”, with the current major funder – the Government – exercising ultimate control over how the universities conduct their business. But should it be allowed to continue with command and control once it slips below the 50 per cent mark for funding?
Brady’s view is that each institutions should be “empowered with the operational flexibility and autonomy” to run their affairs and pay their way in the world, a view he stated most recently on the release of the Times Higher Education (THE) world university rankings which saw UCD making gains. Brady argues that allowing this autonomy would be in the interests of both the Government and the universities. Command and control in the higher education sector does not work he says and actually impedes the sector’s ability to compete internationally for the best staff and researchers and the top rated graduates and postdoctoral researchers. The current situation meant that UCD was attempting to succeed in this internationalised environment with both its hands tied behind its back, Brady maintains.
Trinity College Dublin unfortunately went down in the same THE rankings, but the message coming from the university’s dean of research, Prof Vinny Cahill, was very much the same. He described the slide as a “wake-up call” not just for Trinity but for the country’s highereducation sector as a whole. The State and the institutions needed to co-invest in all the institutions if we were to compete in a globalised education sector.
There was no contradiction between the two over why sustained investment in the sector was important – jobs and economic growth. The Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation has repeatedly made the point that our fiscal future is dependent on being able to participate in the international knowledge economy. This is where the future money is and with it the jobs and exports and these benefits arise from research and high tech enterprises.