Hostility among politicians to higher education sector must end

Instead of making a case for investment, the government system points to alleged excess

Around the world populism and xenophobia offer extraordinary challenges to our democratic societies.

Both feed on prejudice and baseless assertion. Actual evidence, knowledge and expertise are shrugged off as political correctness or “establishment” thinking.

Now, more than at any time in our recent past, Ireland, and the rest of the world, needs our universities, institutes and colleges; we need knowledge and respect for knowledge; we need the capacity for critical thought and analysis and we need government and the institutions to work in a constructive way, mutually to support the common good and the democratic foundations of society.

Unfortunately, the relationship between the system of government and higher education in Ireland is seriously undermined by an attitude of distrust and hostility among many senior officials and politicians towards higher education institutions and their leaders.

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There are many possible reasons for this, including the personal experience of people as students and behaviours in the system. But prejudice and political convenience also play a part.

Prejudice regards universities and colleges as bottomless pits into which any amount of resources can be poured with nothing to show for it.

Their enormous contribution to our economy is disregarded. And the prejudice is fed by the fact that the cuts to the higher education budgets in recent years have demonstrated that quality higher education can be provided at significantly lower cost than before the recession.

This is a convenient truth for a government system that either cannot, or will not, make decisions about how we can sustainably fund higher education and research.

The institutions themselves play a part with behaviours on issues as diverse as pay, pensions, titles and promotions.

These feed the prejudice of officials that the institutions see public sector regulation as an inconvenience to be circumvented whenever possible; the reality is a very high level of compliance and accountability in the sector.

Consequences

Whatever the reason, the distrust and hostility has had profound consequences. It is hard to avoid the conclusion that, during the recent great recession, higher education was uniquely singled out for the most swinging cuts to public funding.

In the period 2007/8 to 2014/15, there was a decline in State grants for higher education of 38 per cent, overall funding fell by 13.5 per cent while student numbers increased by 25 per cent. This resulted in funding per student falling by 22 per cent in a five-year period.

In the same period approximately 2,000 staff were removed from the sector – a decrease of 13 per cent, while the decrease in the public sector overall was 10 per cent.

The approach to other sectors of the public service is revealing. The number of nurses fell by 6 per cent; the number of doctors remained relatively static; primary education increased its teacher numbers by 5 per cent while the number of post-primary teachers decreased by 9 per cent.

And the effects of distrust and hostility continue in many ways, but the greatest impact lies in the failure to deal with the issue of funding, or even to acknowledge that there is an issue.

Instead of making a case for investment, the government system routinely demands more “efficiency” and points to alleged extravagance and excess in the sector.

Politicians claim that there is no public appetite for more resources for the sector, as a rationale for inaction. There may not be, but this owes much to the failure of successive governments, and opposition parties, to make the case with any sense of conviction for the sector, its massive contribution to Ireland and its resource needs.

If we are to find a way sustainably to fund higher education, in the absence of the strong sectional interests and unions evident at primary and post-primary levels, and indeed in other parts of the public service, we need a change in attitudes and political leadership.

There is a potentially powerful instrument to negate the distrust, hostility and prejudice – an instrument that the institutions have embraced.

It is the process of performance contracts which, since 2013, have been entered into between each higher education institution and the Higher Education Authority (HEA).

Agreement

Through this process the government sets out the outcomes it expects from higher education. Each institution formally enters into an agreement with the HEA on how it will address those objectives, given its mission and strengths, and the measures against which its performance is to be assessed, with up to 7 per cent of funding based on performance.

The process gives an opportunity to government formally to guide the outcomes from the sector that policy has decided on and it offers an instrument to drive improved performance across the sector.

It also offers an opportunity for a better relationship based on trust and a shared understanding between government and the higher education institutions; replacing prejudice with clear evidence of what the higher education and research system is actually delivering against clear objectives.

It is time to shed the hostility. * Tom Boland is former chief executive of the Higher Education Authority