Senior academics have little confidence in management of their own colleges - survey

Scepticism over Government plan to build ‘best’ education system in Europe

Senior academics have little confidence in the governance and management capacity of their own higher education institutions, according to a new survey.

It also finds many are sceptical over the Government's ambition to provide the best education system in Europe over the next decade.

The findings are contained in a survey of more than 340 senior staff in higher education institutions and agencies by the polling firm Prospectus.

The survey, commissioned by education consultants BH Associates, finds that poor policy support, a failure to attract world-class academics and an unhelpful policy on immigration are factors feeding this scepticism

Many also agree that the sector is over-regulated by the Government and seriously underfunded.

While institutional autonomy for colleges is protected under Irish law, a small majority of staff say this is not their experience.

Almost half feel the system of regulation and accountability exercised by the Department of Education and the Higher Education Authority is "not appropriate".

The vast majority believe the performance of higher education institutions is negatively impacted by public sector constraints such as pay caps and limits on staff numbers.

This issue is particularly topical in light of draft legislation published by the Minister for Education last summer on plans to reform the functions, powers and structure of the Higher Education Authority (HEA).

While the Government argues that these measures are needed to update the regulation of the sector, some university sources fear it will further erode their autonomy.

A large proportion of respondents also agree that the system of public oversight of higher education exercised by such bodies as the Dáil's Public Accounts Committee is not appropriate.

This committee has been to the fore in throwing light on a series of controversies over public spending.

In accompanying comments, BH Associates note that the findings should represent a “loud wake-up call” to institutions about their personnel management and development systems.

At the same time, it notes, there is a high level of opposition to what is seen as “overly rigid regulation by the Department of Education/HEA and the highly politicised approach to public accountability of the Committee of Public Accounts.”

It says a a conclusion from these views is that the sector is “open to reform of the governance, management and accountability” but in a way that gives more autonomy to the institutions, while enhancing the capability of governing bodies and institutional management.

A large majority also feel there is a high risk for Irish institutions that are seeking to maximise their income by recruiting large numbers of students internationally.

While international student recruitment has been a lucrative source of income, respondents feel this dependence has risks as it is subject to the policies and practices of other countries over which Ireland has no control.

There is also strong support for private education providers, such as Griffith College or Dublin Business School.

About 15 per cent of students attending third level are enrolled in private institutions.

However, the lack of funding for such institutions and their students has long been a source of controversy within private colleges. For example, students at such colleges are not eligible for State grants.

There is very strong support (85 per cent) for the statement that the private sector has an important contribution to make to the higher education system in Ireland.