Manning's rescue mission

 

THE EDUCATION PROFILE: MAURICE MANNING, CHANCELLOR OF THE NATIONAL UNIVERSITY OF IRELAND:As the new chancellor of the National University of Ireland, Maurice Manning will have to use his considerable skill and remarkable good will to put flesh on the bones of an old body riven by new problems, writes LOUISE HOLDEN

MAURICE MANNING has been appointed chancellor of the National University of Ireland on its 100th birthday. Many in education believed that Garret Fitzgerald, stepping down after 12 years, would turn off the lights. However, Manning has committed to carrying the careworn body into another century.

There’s little left on the bones of the NUI and Manning has been tipped for Áras an Uachtaráin rather than Merrion Square. So what can the former leader of Seanad Éireann and Ireland’s most popular academic bring to his new role, apart from closure?

The National University of Ireland was once, as an insider put it, “at the centre of the universe”. The organisation awarded degrees on behalf of four member universities; UCD, UCC, NUI Galway and NUI Maynooth. It sanctioned all appointments (or not, as was often the case), ran the Seanad Éireann elections for the NUI constituency (all graduates of the member universities have a vote) and awarded scholarships and honorary degrees. In short, it had clout.

There have been four chancellors since its inception – all giants of public life who guarded NUI fiercely for decades apiece. However, during the chancellorship of Garret Fitzgerald, NUI began to languish. The Universities Act of 1997 granted autonomy to the four member universities to award their own degrees and recruit independently. The two central functions of the NUI were stripped away.

Fitzgerald fought hard for the NUI and it was commonly understood that the former Taoiseach was the only bulwark between the NUI and the history books.

UCD, in particular, has been an enfant terrible in the NUI family. The relationship is “uncomfortable”, according to NUI sources. “UCD wants out and is acting as if it is out,” says an observer. “The university is planning to award its own degrees. In respect of the small number of things the NUI is still responsible for, the organisation has been getting up Hugh Brady’s nose. The final nail has been the TCD/UCD Innovation Alliance. The focus of the two universities has changed. It will be too difficult to resurrect – the general conclusion is that the game is over.”

The October budget delivered another blow. Since 1997 NUI has taken on five affiliated colleges – the Institute of Public Administration, the Milltown Institute, Shannon College, the NCAD and the Royal College of Surgeons – and has awarding power for those colleges. However, the body recently tasked with implementing the merger of Hetac, Fetac and the National Qualifications Authority is expected to confiscate the remaining legislative responsibility of the NUI. This would have “serious implications” for the organisation, one leading NUI figure admits.

So, has Maurice Manning arrived just as the party is over?

Not everyone has given up on the NUI, and there are those that believe Manning could breathe new life into the old body and give it a fresh outlook. He certainly commands respect – the man has been a member of the Dáil, a leader of the Senate and towering figure in Irish academia for decades. He is also a founding president of the Irish Council for Human Rights; some even fancy him for President of Ireland.

“Maurice’s unusual qualities flow from the fact that he has for long inhabited two worlds – politics and academe,” says a close friend. “And he has never allowed himself to be enclosed intellectually or emotionally by either. He’s an extraordinarily well-rounded man – in the fullest sense a complete public man.”

If peacemaking is required at the NUI, Manning is up to the task, say those who know him. “He has a very wide range of friends and contacts – completely eclectic. And remarkably, I don’t think he has any enemies. He’s resourceful, principled, courageous and well organised.”

As an academic, Manning inspired great warmth and respect on campus, says a former colleague. “Maurice is the outstanding academic and public figure of our generation. He was a pillar of UCD for three decades – arguably the most popular lecturer in the history of UCD. He will be a unifying figure in NUI. He is persuasive and will make a strong case for the intrinsic rather than the utilitarian value of higher education.”

Those with hope for the future of NUI believe that Manning can imbue the organisation with new values. “Maurice can bring a focus of shared objectives in NUI, can help to promote coherence,” says one.

A leading figure in NUI agrees. “His particular background in human rights, and the development of the individual, means that he has a real commitment to freedom of education. There’s a feeling that we need to fight our corner in NUI, and he can do that for us. We have a role – to be useful and valuable to our members, to provide a central forum and to promote NUI degrees at home and abroad. We see ourselves as a serious Higher Education institution tasked to advance learning and scholarship.

“We award fellowships and prizes – up to a million Euro a year. We continue to operate the election of NUI constituency candidates to Seanad Éireann. That’s huge operational task.”

There are roughly 100,000 graduates of NUI colleges eligible to vote in the Seanad elections. Almost 40,000 exercised that franchise in the last election, electing Joe O’Toole, Feargal Quinn and Ronan Mullen. Trinity College graduates elect a further three members: neither UL nor DCU graduates have an input. This anomaly is undermining the status of the Seanad Éireann at a time when the public is questioning its role. If the franchise were extended, another central function of the NUI could be under threat.

At present, updating the electorate keeps the 17 staff of Merrion Square busy. The NUI has a budget of €3m a year, coming primarily from the universities. It’s a modest budget by the standards of some statutory bodies, and around one-third of it goes back in to the system in the form of scholarships and bursaries.

Nonetheless, the whole apparatus of public service is up for grabs and any body that is duplicating the functions of others has reason to be worried. At the husting debate in the run-up to the election, Manning acknowledged that he would be fighting for the survival of his new role.

“NUI was a unifying force at the time of its establishment and has continued in that role. The NUI Senate has always been above party politics, has promoted solidarity among Irish universities and provided a forum for dialogue. There is no getting away from the basic issue of the survival of NUI and that the first task of the new chancellor will be to face that issue, by leadership, by deepening the federal process and working together with heads of the constituent universities.”

Some educational leaders are deeply sceptical. “The NUI is dead as a doornail. There is no commonality of interest between the constituent universities and colleges anymore. Maurice Manning is a decent, able guy who means to do something to revive it. He has no chance of success. This won’t be a happy role for him.”

Others take a longer view. “If you look back over the 100-year history of NUI, the organisation has constantly been under threat from various sources. This is not the first time that its demise has been declared. It has survived for 100 years, it can survive this too.”

The Last Chancellor? roll call at NUI

There are those who claim that Maurice Manning will be the NUI's last chancellor. Yet that has been said of a number of the five illustrious leaders of the 100-year-old organisation.

DR MAURICE MANNING

NUI Chancellor 2009 -

Born in Bagenalstown, Co Carlow

Dr Maurice Manning spent three decades in the Department of Politics at UCD and served on the Governing Authority of UCD from 1979 to 2008.

He has served in both the Dáil and Seanad Éireann and was a member of the New Ireland Forum and the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body. He was leader of Seanad Éireann and led the Opposition in the House.

Maurice Manning is the president of the Irish Human Rights Commission and is chairman of the European Group of National Human Rights Institutions.

He has published several books including a novel.

GARRET FITZGERALD

NUI Chancellor 1997 - 2009

Lecturer in economics and European Affairs at UCD. Entered Seanad Éireann in 1965 and Dáil Éireann in 1969. In 1973 he was appointed Fine Gael foreign minister and in 1977 became leader of the party.

Twice elected Taoiseach.

TK WHITAKER

NUI Chancellor 1976 - 1997

An economist who rose through the civil service to become secretary to the Department of Finance.

Played a key role in Ireland's economic recovery in the 1960s. In 1969 he became Governor General of the Central Bank. Nominated to Seanad Éireann in 1977.

EAMON DEVALERA

NUI Chancellor 1921 - 1975

Founder of the Fianna Fáil Party in 1926 and Taoiseach from 1932 until 1948. He returned to leadership from 1951 to 1954 and from 1957 to 1959. President of Ireland for 14 years.

WILLIAM J WALSHE

NUI Chancellor 1908 - 1921

Professor of Theology at St Patrick's College Maynooth, William J Walshe went on to become president of the college. He was appointed Archbishop of Dublin in 1885.