Historian, Diarmaid Ferriter’s recent Irish Times article will have resonated with a lot of people working in the higher education sector, including me. I had recently been chatting with a colleague about how rumours were going around about the fact that our online materials would have to come suitably “branded”. I’ve no idea if that is the case and what “branding” means in this context but the word is not one that one would have heard in a university even ten years ago. I’d also been a involved, peripherally, in a project in which new programmes would be developed but part of the ‘deal’ was that in these new courses certain ‘innovative’ pedagogies would be required, i.e., imposed. Again, I’ve no idea as to what extent these pedagogies were non-negotiable but I was taken aback. The development of new programmes has always been a bottom-driven process, especially in DCU where there is a genuine culture of innovation. It dates back to NIHE days. Being required to adopt certain approaches to teaching, approaches that I fundamentally disagree with, was a massive change of ethos, at least in my head. Nonetheless, many people seemed happy to go ahead with this approach.
And this is the fundamental problem. Often we read about the tyranny of “administrators” in our universities but the reality is that many of these administrators are actually academics who have gone into ‘management’.
We tend to assume that all people who become academics do so out of a love of knowledge, of research and, in some cases, teaching. While many probably start out that way, quite a large number seem to run out of steam, often for very legitimate reasons, both personal and systemic, and move into administrative roles. And many of them, especially those with a systemising mindset, take to their roles with gusto. Sometimes, administering is a lot easier than the constant pressure to fund and create new research, all the while teaching and administering large undergraduate classes.
A relatively common feature of such academics is that they tend to distrust their colleagues and have an awful tendency to introduce layers of bureaucracy to keep us all on track. Often this lack of trust is based on the poor practices of a small number of academics. Instead of those academics being held to account, we all have to fill in more forms.
I joined the “dark side” in 2014 and served for three and a half years as associate dean for teaching and learning in my faculty. I enjoyed the job immensely, especially my interactions with people, but it was a balancing act. I strongly believe in giving academics freedom to teach in whatever way they see fit, to allow them scope for some spontaneity and not be bound by syllabuses they wrote a year previously. I’m also suspicious of the whole concept of Learning Outcomes. So my time in the job required me to walk a fine line between not doing the job I had signed up to do and becoming a sort of control freak, as can happen, and does happen.
But it is interesting to consider how we got here. To some extent, I have sympathy for senior management because the government gave us an impossible task: expand student numbers while receiving less state funding. The institutions had to raise more money and how they did so trapped them into never-ending cycles of growth. New programmes, more international students, more staff, more research grants provided the funds to introduce new programmes, recruit more international students, recruit more staff, to earn more grants to ……You see where this is going. When UL launched their strategic plan a few months ago, it could have been written by any other institution in the country or even the UK. The key theme was growth: more students, especially international ones, better facilities (to entice more students), stronger connections with industry. The growth model for higher education has become so embedded in our culture that it is very difficult to see how changes can be made. Indeed, observing a Twitter conversation between two very well-known business/finance academics, I was struck by how their thinking was exactly the same as the establishment’s thinking was in 2008: it was all more of the same.
Despite the understandable bind that senior managers have been in, we have been our own worst enemies. Irish Institutions have worked themselves into a prestige race, just as the American universities have. As a result, we have expanded our reach way beyond teaching and research: engagement and impact are now what it is all about. Under some circumstances this would be fine in my view but when there is so little money about, one would have thought that it was time to circle the wagons and focus on our core activities. But there has been something unstoppable about the corporatisation of our universities and it’ll take enormous courage and no little skill for individual institutions to chart a new way forward.
One of my biggest problems with the current model of higher education is that while we (as in the sector) talk a good game when it come access programmes, the emphasis on growth and prestige has closed many doors to school-leavers from disadvantaged backgrounds.
I think the perfect example of this (and this won’t make me many friends in DCU!) is the teaching of Actuarial Maths. Becoming an actuary used to be well within the reach of the young person from any background once they had an A in honours maths. But all institutions saw actuarial maths as an opportunity to grow student numbers: not just any old students, but students with well in excess of 500 points. So we now offer degree programmes all over Ireland that are effectively a taxpayer gift to the finance industries. We’ll train your recruits in such a way so that won’t have to take so much study leave! And I imagine you could say the same about many other professions. Meanwhile, if you’re living in the wrong postcode area, your chances of going to university are minimal.