Business over-influences university research agenda

Departing UCC president, Michael Murphy, welcomes funding from industry but worries it dictates research decisions, he tells Education Correspondent Niall Murray.
Business over-influences university research agenda

The business community has too much influence on Ireland’s research agenda, at the expense of non-scientific disciplines, the outgoing president of University College Cork, Michael Murphy, says.

Murphy says business is over-represented on bodies that make important funding decisions, though he wants the sector to continue contributing to higher education, via taxes and philanthropy.

He will hand over the UCC presidency next week to physicist Patrick O’Shea, a UCC graduate and the chief research officer of the University of Maryland, in the US, since 2011.

Murphy says industry should have a say in the governance of universities, to ensure they are sensitive to the needs of business, “but we also have to be very careful about the extent to which we permit the business sector to influence the overall agenda. I have a concern at the extent to which the business community has become the dominant voice in the research agenda,” he says.

He says the business community has an excessive influence in the design of research systems, and in the setting of priorities, at the biggest research funding agency, Science Foundation Ireland.

“If you examine the board of SFI and look at the balance between representation of business interest and, on the other hand, competence in scientific methods, you will find it’s quite different from the nature of such boards in other countries,” he said.

SFI funds basic and applied science and technology research to develop Irish industry and employment, and make it more competitive.

Eleven of its 12 board members are appointed by the minister for jobs, enterprise, and innovation, and the remaining one by the minister for education, posts previously and currently held by Richard Bruton.

Of 10 directors who are not civil servants, seven are in business, including three with science or technology backgrounds and one working in a university, and three are current or former scientific researchers.

SFI does not fund the humanities, and Murphy says the wider public agenda shows insufficient regard to research in disciplines outside science, technology, engineering, and maths (STEM).

“And even within science, insufficient regard is given to maths, and other areas where skills are vital to society and where Ireland is performing poorly,” he says.

His criticisms are not so much directed at industry, but, rather, at the ministerial nomination of directors of the relevant agencies. This leads to the business influence that concerns him. These views, nonetheless, are unlikely to be popular with employers who have to make additional direct contributions to third-level funding.

Richard Bruton and Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe are due to consult with representatives of business and industry, on options that might include an increased employer contribution.

But the Government is planning for additional funding to be raised from business, for higher education, in 2018, possibly to strengthen a case for students to also pay higher college fees.

While those decisions are formally awaiting the outcome of Oireachtas committee deliberations on last year’s report by Peter Cassells about future third-level funding, Murphy — like most of his university counterparts — supports increased contributions from all quarters.

“A mixed funding model makes best sense from a university’s perspective, and students need to pay a little more. But not too much more, because we don’t want to go where the UK and US have gone, with huge amounts of student debt,” he says.

While student unions and trade unions argue for a fully State-funded system, Murphy says the proportion of higher education funding from the exchequer should never return to previous levels, as the sector has been paying the price for over-reliance on one funding source.

“When I started this job, 86c in every euro we received came from the exchequer, but that’s now down to 50c in the euro. That includes the €3,000 [undergraduate] students pay, but students need to raise their input,” he says.

Even with the “study-now, pay later” option increasingly likely to be chosen by government, such fees would not bridge the funding gap.

Michael Murphy will hand over the presidency of UCC to physicist Patrick O’Shea next week. "Given the circumstances of what somebody has described as the worst economic challenge for a century, the fact that we continued to satisfy students, in spite of all that, is the thing I’m most proud of," he said.
Michael Murphy will hand over the presidency of UCC to physicist Patrick O’Shea next week. "Given the circumstances of what somebody has described as the worst economic challenge for a century, the fact that we continued to satisfy students, in spite of all that, is the thing I’m most proud of," he said.

UCC’s State allocation for staffing and running costs fell by 60% between 2008 and 2015, down €49m, from €84m to €35m. The first reversal, last year, was a small, but welcome, 3% increase, or €1m. But after undergraduate student numbers nationally grew by 14% in the same period, to 150,000, UCC, and other universities, have far less to spend on a per-student basis.

New enrolments by non-EU students have jumped by 50% in the last two years at UCC, to 800, not including those on short visits. But even with the income from their fees, a significant shortfall remains.

Efforts are focusing on alumni and industry to encourage them to financially support teaching and learning in Cork. Much of this fundraising is international, but Dr Murphy says the spending on those efforts pays.

His hope is that this work will be expanded by his successor, Patrick O’Shea, who has been spending time on campus since late last year, since before he leaves his post as University of Maryland’s vice-president and head of research.

Last October, Murphy told a briefing for staff and students that there is “money to be mined out there”, although he is under no illusion, either, that increased philanthropy and fundraising will ever fill a major proportion of the university’s funding gap.

That said, staffing losses in the office which manages fundraising are being clawed back. Increased staffing costs jumped 60%, to €500,000 last year, but the return increased pro-rata, from €5.3m to €9m.

With further staffing increases authorised and returns matching the €18 for every €1 spent on fundraising at similar universities in the UK, targets of €30m to €40m do not appear unrealistic.

The constant financial considerations for senior university management, including requirements for staffing rises, may concern those working in labs and lecture halls.

The severe restrictions of the past few years, on academic appointments and promotions, are slowly being lifted, although a number of senior posts have been left for Patrick O’Shea to fill, as he decides the shape of his management teams.

Among the posts to be filled are 10 professorships, either newly-created or vacant owing to retirements, for the new Cork University Business School (CUBS). It should move, by early 2018, to a new city centre headquarters, bought from Cork City Council late last year for €1.4m.

The focus will be on providing executive courses for local and regional businesses. But rather than being a diversion of staffing, and other resources, Murphy is conscious of its potential to generate revenue, as well as the relationships that may boost future philanthropic campaigns.

“Across the world, in universities, certain disciplines, like business and medicine, for which people are prepared to pay a premium, cross-subsidise others which are critical to the health of society,” he says.

“We need engineers, we need poets, we need the whole spectrum. We have a strong business school, with the strong capacity to provide funding to support other important, but less popular or more expensive, disciplines.”

Such sentiments will be appreciated by those in the arts and social sciences. But they might also be perceived as populist, by corners of the UCC campus, after staff criticised last summer’s naming of a building in honour of controversial scientist, James Watson.

The 1962 Nobel laureate was one of the team who discovered DNA structures, but is also known for statements that have been labelled sexist, misogynist, and racist. Although he stands over the decision to name the Watson Building, in UCC’s medical health complex, in Watson’s honour, Murphy says he might, in retrospect, have gone about things differently.

“Difficulties can arise when individuals are not saints by the standards of the day. If I do have any regret in the matter, it’s that we had not consulted widely enough.”

He attributed to the Watson incident plans to possibly give staff working in a building an input into its naming.

At a personal level, the death on campus of buildings and estates staff member, Frank McGrath, in a 2013 workplace accident, had a deep impact on Murphy.

“You always wonder about what if you had done something different, not that you could have done anything personally, but it was the most traumatic.”

The two latter topics underline what is usually forgotten about the role of university president. Although it is increasingly focused on finances and resources, it is the job of chief executive to ensure continuation and improvement of service for a student body of 21,000.

Unreliable as they might be, international rankings are increasingly the measure by which the quality of that service and education are benchmarked. It is a measure to which too much attention is paid, as Murphy was left in no doubt last week, when he helped UCC historian, John A Murphy, mark his 90th birthday.

Despite falls in recent years, UCC’s retention of a position in the top 300 of the QS World University Rankings, after years of staffing cuts and increased enrolments, is a matter of pride to the outgoing president. From 386 in 2006 to 286 the following year, and into the top 200 in 2022, the university was ranked 283rd last year.

“I have shaken 41,952 hands at conferrings, and the parchment we have given them still has a higher standing today compared to where it stood 10 years ago,” he says.

But an achievement in which he has equal pride is the value of a UCC education to the students. A 2016 survey of students found that 96% were ‘satisfied’ or ‘very satisfied’ with their time there, an increase on two years earlier, which even Michael Murphy had not expected.

“Given the circumstances of what somebody has described as the worst economic challenge for a century, the fact that we continued to satisfy students, in spite of all that, is the thing I’m most proud of.”

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