Must try harder: this year's report card for the key figures in higher education


LEFTFIELD:IT WAS A SIGHT to remind me of my days at the coalface. On a stop-over in Dublin, I saw a young man struggling to carry what must have been 500 exam answer books to his car. As I passed, he dropped about half of them and I took pity and helped him pick them up. He told me he had four days to return them so they could be sent to the external examiner. That’s four days, and probably some of the nights too, of non-stop marking. I miss teaching students and exchanging ideas with them, but hell, I don’t miss the marking.

If I’m not marking student exam papers, maybe I can grade the efforts of some of the key figures in higher education over the past academic year instead. I’ll mark them strictly, with absolutely no grade inflation, so a good mark really means something.

Let me look at the political class first. Generally these are like the usual bunch of students – on the whole well-meaning, with some of them just a little bit dim, but mostly coming out with an unexciting but solid 2.2. We’ve had two ministers for education this term, though they are not easily comparable.

Mary Coughlan slipped into the post in a sideways (or downward) move, and in many ways she struggled in class. I cannot fault her helpfulness and her desire to make a difference, but education was not her natural field.

Ruairí Quinn is an entirely different proposition. Having been Labour spokesman for education he was well prepared for the job, and moreover clearly eager to get down to business. Since taking up the post, he has hardly put a foot wrong. He has challenged the vested interests (from the church to the trade unions), and has quickly recognised which issues need to be addressed in order to build confidence in Ireland’s education system. He easily gets a First, and his report card will recommend him highly. The only slight niggle is that he is continuing with the implementation of the Hunt Report which should just be shelved; and I am waiting to see how much of the terrible employment control framework (which appears to limit research activity) he intends to retain; again, it should just be scrapped. I would also give a good mark to former minister Batt O’Keeffe, but he has already graduated.

Other politicians have been in view. One particularly appalling performance was by members of the Public Accounts Committee when they grilled the university presidents last autumn. Mind you, this was probably not the presidents’ finest hour either; but certain politicians seemed determined to get applause from the gallery by laying into the academic profession and making misleading suggestions about their working conditions. Yes, the academic profession needs to reform, but this kind of collective character assassination was uncalled for. I would not find it easy to allocate a pass mark there.

Also heading for a repeat exam are some of the officials in the Department of Finance and in Education, who seem determined to impose restrictions and controls on the universities that will stop them from playing their part in Ireland’s regeneration. Apart from their sponsoring of the employment control framework, their fingerprints are also all over the Hunt report, with its emphasis on a centralised co-ordination of the system.

What about the Higher Education Authority? It tends to get bad press in the academic community, but I don’t think that this is merited. It often has an impossible job to do, and it tries to inject commonsense and reason wherever it can. Its chief executive, Tom Boland, handed in some fine work over the academic year, and will get a good mark.

I’m less sure about the new chairman John Hennessy. His comment that humanities and arts academics “hold their noses” at the idea of working with industry is quite silly: about as rational as complaining that biochemists don’t work enough with the Abbey Theatre.

But he’s new, so I let him hand in that assignment again.

At the second attempt, last week, he compensated somewhat by stressing the importance of the humanities and calling for greater autonomy for universities.

And the academic profession? Some have been crying aloud about rampant managerialism and suchlike. I can understand them, I think, but this will win them no friends. The wider population don’t think academics are over-worked and believe they resist all change mindlessly. We need to present a much less defensive message to the public, emphasising where we can change, and where we support the country’s priorities.

And the university presidents? To get top marks they need to look at how they communicate with their academic community. During all that noise about the Croke Park agreement and the employment control framework, the presidents were, in the main, silent. They need to build confidence and engage staff – to say something, explain and reassure.

And now, I wish you all a very happy and rewarding summer. I know that many people think academics are off for weeks, if not months. That’s not the case in the universities, where holidays for two or three weeks are typical. But do enjoy them. And stay cool, until we meet again.

Ferdinand von Prondzynski is principal of Robert Gordon University (RGU) in Scotland