Universities need less regulation and more autonomy
Academic institutions must be trusted to make decisions for society and students
Universities are already working more closely with industry and subsidising the provision of high-cost Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) degrees. Photograph: Chris Ison/PA
When announcing the latest links between university funding and delivery of national priorities, the Government has once again shown that there is a clear need for a wider understanding of the structures and processes of transparency and accountability that are already in place in the higher education sector.
Rather than attempting to exert more control and to threaten financial penalties that will only impact negatively on the quality of education that can be delivered, they should entrust university leaders, within the existing oversight mechanisms, to make decisions in the best interests of our students and our wider contributions to society.
The latest Higher Education Authority (HEA) report on the performance of the system demonstrates just how well we have met the targets set out in our “performance compacts”. These targets included a set of actions aligned with goals decided by the Department of Education and Skills.
Last year, although the university finances for UCD returned to 2008 levels, the mix of funding sources has changed dramatically, from 65 per cent State funding in 2008 to 35 per cent State funding in 2017. At the same time student numbers have grown by 25 per cent, so this period of austerity has had a dramatic impact on student:staff ratios, with a knock-on effect on international rankings.
The modern university is an extraordinarily successful institution. Universities emerged at the time of medieval guilds, as self-governing associations of students and teachers with collective legal rights
That the Irish universities stepped up to the plate to deliver increased performance despite decreased funding should not be a surprise.
The modern university is an extraordinarily successful institution. Universities emerged at the time of medieval guilds, as self-governing associations of students and teachers with collective legal rights. Remarkably resilient, universities have survived revolutions and operate under all types of government systems.
Within a university structure, there are multiple layers of governance and management, ensuring academic standards are preserved, research is carried out ethically and accurately, resources are managed appropriately, and the financial and human resource obligations of the organisation are met. A significant feature of the most successful universities is that decision-making is devolved to the lowest appropriate level, and that there is a system of oversight and planning ensuring the university works strategically to achieve its objectives and to deliver its mission. Straightforward matters are resolved at local level, with the more difficult decisions resolved at the more senior levels of the organisation.
In more recent years, public sector austerity measures have included taking some decision-making, particularly on HR matters, away from university decision-making processes and accountability lines.
Certain decisions now require “approval” either from the HEA, the Department of Education and Skills, the Minister, or in some cases “approval” without any clarity as to who has the authority to give this approval.
This is frustrating for academic leaders, who have the knowledge, skills and experience to make these decisions, and also for the wider university community. In addition, decisions made external to the university cannot be challenged in the same way decisions made within the university can be, and so this approach actually reduces accountability.
Today, Irish universities earn the country hundreds of millions of euro worth of foreign income, and use this to subsidise the education of Irish students, so the value being provided to the Irish taxpayer is extraordinary.
History has shown that self-governing universities are a highly successful approach to higher education
Yes, not everything is done perfectly, but history has shown that self-governing universities are a highly successful approach to higher education. Leaders within the universities are much better equipped to make decisions around the use of resources than individuals outside.
We are already responding to societal needs for more flexible study options, increased access to work placements, and greater numbers of lifelong learners. In the global economy, we are already working more closely with industry and subsidising the provision of high-cost Stem (science, technology, engineering and mathematics ) degrees, and we have shown our capability to expand industry funding, research innovation and spinouts. All without incentivisation from the funding model and in the face of reduced State funding.
Let us get on with the job, and we will be able to serve our students and our society all the more effectively for it. Allow the mechanisms that are already in place to give you assurance that we are delivering our performance goals and using resources, both State and non-State, wisely. And pay heed to the independent expert panel when it says “Ireland cannot continue, as we have been, increasing student numbers without a commensurate increase in investment. Increased investment is essential to align our higher education system with our national ambition for growth and employment and with the wider needs of society.”
Pro Andrew Deeks is president of University College Dublin