Over-interference a big concern for college leaders

Education Minister Jan O’Sullivan says extra funding can only come at a price, writes Niall Murray

It is not just how the Government impacts on their finances but university bosses are also concerned about how it rules on their day-to-day management.

While Jan O’Sullivan stressed in her first public engagement with higher education chiefs yesterday that accountability has to be provided in return for the scale of public investment in our third-level colleges, the challenges being imposed were stressed by some of those institutions’ leaders.

Michael Murphy, president of University College Cork, warned the Government of the risks perceived within the sector of over-interference in the system.

“There are proposals to streamline governance currently on the legislative table, with input from universities themselves,” he said. “But, at the same, time there is undoubtedly micro-management, particularly in areas of human resources, in the management of people which limit our ability to be innovative and to be efficient.”

The demand of universities for greater freedom to hire and fire, but also to reward brighter international researchers with suitable remuneration packages has largely fallen on deaf ears in recent years. A forthcoming bill may give Ms O’Sullivan or her successors power to penalise colleges which breach pay ceilings without approval, as University College Dublin and others did in the recent past, for which they faced a series of Public Accounts Committee grillings and had to redirect the overpayments back into student services.

Ironically, a policy of greater staffing and pay autonomy is one which is favoured by Higher Education Authority chairman John Hennessy, who comes from an industry background and recognises the importance of getting the best talent.

Despite concerns here, the Irish Universities Association event where Ms O’Sullivan and Dr Murphy were speaking also heard restrictions still apply to staff salaries in most European third-level systems.

European Universities Association director of governance, funding and public policy Thomas Estermann said, however, that autonomy around staffing here has diminished because of changes in government policy on public service recruitment, salaries and promotions in recent years.

The country’s universities, however, have greater academic freedom than elsewhere and rank highly on other measurements of autonomy such as financial and governance.

However, another international indicator shows Ireland falling to a worrying bottom place in an OECD table for spending-per-student on higher education. This was flagged by the OECD education directorate’s, Patricia Mangeol, who said it may be due to the explosion in student numbers, and it also raises issues about quality.

The impact of funding shortages on quality was a key argument raised by university chiefs, among them IUA chairman and Trinity College Dublin provost Patrick Prendergast.

But a focus on funding solutions alone is ill-advised, according to Stephanie Fahey, 30 years an academic in Australia and now a lead partner in Ernst & Young’s Education Oceania.

“I don’t think just arguing for more funding to support existing models is tenable. I think there’s going to have to be a shift in the higher education landscape,” said the former vice-chancellor for global engagement at Monash University.

Her key suggestion was for Ireland to forget about getting as many universities as possible into the world’s top rankings, and to focus instead on having one world-class institution.

“In Australia we think we might be able to afford one, one we might be able to promote into the top 50 or the top 20,” she said.

Mr Prendergast, meanwhile, had earlier warned that lack of investment raises concerns about future jobs and research investment in Ireland. He, like most university chiefs, favours increased student investment as well as public funding rises, but said rising public investment in Asian universities means failing to match those increases here would see Irish universities slip further on international rankings.

Last week, TCD slipped 10 places to 71 in the QS World University Rankings and most others also fell, except University College Dublin (staying at 139th) and NUI Galway which moved up four to 280th. However, many of our colleges improved their scores, only for Asian colleges to surpass them.

What Ms Fahey suggests — like the Government strategy does — is a focus by most Irish institutions on specialising on their own strengths, rather than offering courses and research in a wide variety of disciplines. She said they can still compete with each other for research funding, while continuing to collaborate more.

NUI Galway president Jim Browne agrees with the principle, saying it is not a single leading university that Ireland needs, but one university system.

The idea of eliminating duplication of course provision is not a new one, and is already being addressed — albeit, slowly — by the HEA through reviews to date, for example, of teacher education, creative arts programmes. These are leading to more concentration of courses into smaller numbers of colleges, but this kind of consolidation is taking time to embed and will be a long time being extended to larger areas of provision.

All of these changes are taking place against a background of colleges catering for more students with fewer staff — 2,000 fewer than in the early stages of the country’s financial woes.

So even with the greatest improvements in efficiencies being sought by government, Ms O’Sullivan will have to live up to her promise yesterday that she will act on the recommendations, due in late 2015, of an expert group appointed in July to assess options for funding third-level.

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