Universities and autonomy

I suspect that many people in the university sector are upset at government’s desire to exert more and more control over the third level sector. The presumption seems to be that universities will function optimally when allowed maximum autonomy. There is also a strong sense that if the proportion of an institution’s total income that comes from the state is declining, then the degree of control by the state should also be declining. It seems only fair.

But at a time when state budgets are under severe pressure, especially in the broad area of health, it is no surprise that the state might want to be sure that institutions are spending money well. There was a time when the ‘job’ of universities was mainly to educate – things were simple back then – but these days our brief has expanded to encompass a wide range of activities including contributing directly to economic growth via startups etc., and generally engaging with society and the economy to a far greater extent than we used to. In addition, much of what we do has to be seen in the context of a higher education system that has become a marketplace in which institutions are competing for students and ranking, creating a prestige race in the process. This is a dangerous scenario as we have seen in the United States.

The job of a government is to govern and implement it’s policies and there is no doubt that if you grant autonomy to institutions to whom you grant more than a billion euro per year, you are relinquishing control over your ability to implement your policies, the policies you have been elected to implement.  It’s called democracy.

If I were to become Minister for Education and I was faced with the so-called third level “crisis”, the first thing I would do is conduct a forensic audit into how the institutions are spending their money. This is not to suggest that there is anything ‘dodgy’ going on; it’s simply that, as Minister, I would feel obliged to know how precisely tax-payers’ money was being spent. I would do the same if I was in any other ministry, especially Health.

I’d also conduct a really forensic investigation into academic standards. Again this is not to suggest that the institutions are deliberately ‘dumbing down’; it’s simply that I’d want to get a true sense of where third level education is currently at. (Personally, I don’t think our current approaches to quality are adequate, partly because there is no agreement as to what constitutes a high quality third level education. The whole field of education is riddled with ideology and opinion, and we have no mechanisms for judging institutions against each other.)

Other ‘industries’ and professions have advocated for light-touch regulation or self regulation  in the past, and we’ve seen how that worked out. Are we really any different? We need to get over our exceptionalism.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s