Independence would enhance role of universities in society

 

Colleges can only challenge conventional wisdom if their autonomy is protected

THE LAZY way for a government to save money is to tell every Minister to reduce their spend by a given percentage. That makes it easier to avoid argument in Cabinet about cuts. But it should be obvious that the impact of this refusal to exercise judgment on the impact of cuts in different areas of expenditure can have a potentially damaging impact on the future of the economy and society. Some kinds of public spending promote future growth, or help to protect the less well-off in a downturn, while others may fail to do either, or may have a negative impact on either objective.

At €4 billion, the overall scale of the fiscal adjustment in last December’s budget was well-judged – just large enough to restore external confidence in our economy, while avoiding going over the top in a way that could have depressed our economy. The Minister for Finance had wisely taken advice from outside as well as inside the system.

But the composition of the €4 billion adjustment is questionable. More of the adjustment could have been made through tax increases and less through cuts. But I recognise that it is a matter of political judgment as to whether our major tax shortfall should have been tackled in last December’s budget or in the next one.

What is not a matter of judgment however, is the simple fact that the lazy system of making equal cuts in every department’s budget is further damaging our education system, which, even before this crisis, had been suffering from neglect over recent years. In this new crisis, as in the 1980s, education should have been given priority, instead of being further damaged.

In government in the 1980s, we had to cut spending in many areas. I have been criticised for not having been drastic enough with current spending cuts. But I was not prepared to cut education spending. When in 1983 we prepared a three-year economic and social programme, I was temporarily minister for financeand I negotiated the education part of this programme with the minister, Gemma Hussey.

The provision then made for this sector ensured that during the crisis years to 1987/8 the share of GNP devoted to current spending on education increased slightly. Between 1980 and 1987, the numbers taking the Leaving Certificate rose by 40 per cent, while the number of third-level students rose by over 50 per cent.

By contrast, between 2001 and 2005, at a time when the Fianna Fáil/PD government increased overall current spending by almost two-thirds, it actually reduced the share of current public spending on higher education by the same figure!

That extremely damaging process was accompanied by endless propaganda about creating a “knowledge economy” through the development of “world-class Irish universities”, on the model of the great US research universities.

The truth is that even in good times we could not have afforded even one research university on the US model. The US GNP is about 75 times ours and they have about 80 such universities, so in theory we might seem able to afford one such university. But their universities are almost all financed by philanthropy based on generations of inherited private wealth, of which we have no equivalent.

Faced with this reality, most of our seven universities have wisely chosen to concentrate on becoming “world-class” in one particular scientific area – rather than trying to cover a range of areas in the way that major US research universities can afford to do. In this way, Irish universities have achieved some major scientific breakthroughs, thus defusing the non-credible hype of some government politicians, which certainly hasn’t helped our credibility abroad.

The great strength of Irish higher education has always been the quality of its undergraduate teaching. Its weakness has been on the postgraduate side, where we failed to build up departments that would attract able students from elsewhere to create recognised centres of excellence.

Some years ago, the government woke up to this problem and provided increased resources for research – but simultaneously squeezed the financial provision that would be needed by our universities to cope with this shift in direction. I believe that this squeezing of resources may have damaged the quality of our undergraduate teaching – a matter that urgently requires detailed examination.

Unhappily, neither our politicians nor our civil servants are well-equipped to handle university issues. Although both groups are products of our universities, most seem to lack any grasp of the vital role of universities as sources of challenge to conventional wisdom – and of the need to protect their autonomy.

That autonomy was legally guaranteed by the Universities Act 1997, simply because the change of political regime without an election in 1994 left the incoming government without a majority in the Senate. Government and civil servants were thus unable to prevent the inclusion of this autonomy provision, which shows the potential value of a second chamber.

Our universities’ financial dependence on the exchequer has given politicians and civil servants the power to bend them to their purpose. It has enabled them to press the case for what has often been a narrow, and sometimes distorted agenda, one that has often diminished, or even dismissed, the crucial cultural role of the university in society.

Perhaps some day we will have an enlightened government that will see the need to restore some independence to our universities and provide them with adequate resources so they can resume the role they use to have in building up a cadre of well-taught graduates who spearheaded our economic growth during the Celtic Tiger years. But that’s probably only a pipe dream!