Guest Blogger: Colin Scott

Snipping or Re-Shaping the Universities?

Readers of this Blog will know that last week’s Report of the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure chaired by Colm McCarthy (‘the McCarthy Report’) included a wide range of recommendations for cuts and rationalization which would affect the whole of the education sector, including the third (and fourth, but not yet the ninth) level. Overall I concur with those commentators who find the recommendations of the Group rigorous and refreshing in equal measure. It is inevitable that such an extensive review, carried out over a short space of time, will contain misunderstandings and mistakes. But it is likely that these will be flushed out through the dialogue that has already begun and that the political process will be better informed as a result of the Group’s work. Whilst the detail of the proposals has generated much comment, their tenor and the philosophy underlying them has received less attention. Indeed, what is striking about the McCarthy Report is first the level of detail of its recommendations for the university sector (extending well beyond matters which might ordinarily be considered as staff numbers and expenditure) and second an implicit idea of the future direction of policy for the universities which deviates markedly from current government policy.

One example of detail within the McCarthy Report is a recommendation urgently to address problems of productivity in the third level institutions generally. Did the group really undertake an assessment of productivity in the sector, and if so why only for third level education? Productivity is not mentioned in other parts of Detailed Report 6 on Education, or in respect of any other aspect of public expenditure within the remit of the review. The detailed comments about productivity are likely to be something of a surprise to many in the universities for whom it is an article of faith (backed by data showing) that expenditure and staffing levels per student are well below those typically found in universities in the UK and the United States. Most measures of research productivity for Irish universities, though contested, show a significant upward trajectory over recent years. A related aspect of the Report’s recommendations is that academic employment contracts should be re-written to specify the number of hours to be taught. The report states that such a measure is required to improve efficiencies and services to students – implying that academic staff are under-employed and/or students under-taught at present. Linked to this the group recommends the adoption of a formal academic workload management system and a system of performance management. Under the arrangements for government –university relations set down in the Universities Act 1997 many of the matters addressed are for the universities themselves rather than the government and this begs the question whether the Report is addressed solely to the Government as recommendations for its future stewardship of the public finances, or whether the Group legitimately addresses public agencies, such as universities, directly on matters within their control. In defence of the Report, one might argue that the discussion of productivity and teaching hours are central to the conclusion that the Universities should be able to undertake their existing activities with ten per cent fewer staff and that the adoption of the recommendation would simply involve a ten per cent cut in funding under which it was for the universities themselves to work out how to manage. But am I correct to think that this level of detail is not to be found in respect of other areas of the public sector reviewed within the report?

There are of course important matters within the report affecting universities which do fall squarely within government’s decision making remit. Much of the change in the research environment over recent years has been stimulated by a wide variety of government programmes, most of which require universities to compete (and often to collaborate) for funding. Such funding competitions are a key mechanism both of steering and quality assessment for research. Recommendations to scale down significantly support for research and doctoral research programmes are fairly addressed at government since much of this investment comes not from core grant, but from specified and competitive programmes. What is odd about the proposals on research is that they appear to constitute a change in policy – reflecting a lack of faith in the government commitment to research and innovation as drivers of development – rather than simple search for activities where cuts might least painfully be made. I think there is likely to be a widespread welcome in the universities for one aspect of the reforms proposed in this area, to rationalise the bodies which allocate research funding – perhaps along the lines of the Australian Research Council. A single, strong research council will significantly reduce both transactions costs and learning curves for researchers and universities, and generate a stronger overview of capacities and potential within the sector (which will be of even greater significance if the proposal to abolish the Higher Education Authority and absorb its functions into the Department of Education is accepted).

Underlying the Report’s recommendations there appears to be a belief that the primary function of universities is undergraduate education. This is accompanied by significant dissatisfaction both with government policies and university performance in graduate education and research. The claimed weaknesses in these areas are not matters which universities are to be encouraged to address. Rather their position as undergraduate teaching institutions should be consolidated. The planned Programme of Research in Third Level Institutions should be cancelled (on the grounds that the benefits of previous research programmes have not been demonstrated) and numbers of staff in university research offices should be scaled back. The indicators of the commitment to undergraduate teaching are again found in the detail. The report notes a problem ‘of under-utilisation of resources, both human and infrastructure, over the extended holiday period’. If the Report is here referring to holidays in the sense they are generally understood as the period of two or sometimes three weeks that staff in most areas of employment, public and private, take during the Summer period to recharge their batteries, involving foreign or, more frequently now, domestic travel, then surely that is the point, that human resources are not used but rested. But one suspects that the report is propagating a widely held belief that university staff are only busy when undergraduate students are in attendance for teaching or examinations. I do not have the data on this, but my impression is that the summer vacation period is one in which staff are busy with the wide range of activities which do not comprise undergraduate teaching and examining, and buildings, though they may not be fully used, are frequently pretty full with normal staff activities, and teaching spaces with conferences and workshops. (The report did not go as far as the logical next step in the argument – to create a third teaching period between June and August to keep teaching staff and buildings fully occupied during the summer.) The undergraduate theme is found also in a recommendation that senior academic staff should have ‘minimum undergraduate teaching commitments’. No other recommendations are addressed specifically to senior academic staff. One might think it perhaps equally or more important that senior academic staff would have minimum commitments to graduate teaching, supervision of research students, the undertaking of research activity, the discharge of senior administrative roles, and the performance of professional and community service roles. As a professor who undertakes all these roles simultaneously I can understand that strategic and/or operational imperatives are likely to require more emphasis is given to some, and less to other, activities at particular times and do not see why a review of staff numbers and expenditure should privilege undergraduate teaching so deliberately over the other roles, unless it was by way of asserting the primacy of undergraduate teaching.

None of this discussion is intended to deflect from acceptance within the universities that they are likely to face further budgetary cuts in 2010. However, the discussion does point to further choices to be made over what kind of universities we want to have in the future. Undergraduate education is important within any likely model. But are universities to be encouraged to continue in the strides that they have made towards offering a richer conception of how higher education and research can contribute to social and economic development and well-being, both domestically and abroad, through research, undergraduate and graduate education and the advancement of knowledge more generally? Finally, there is the question who is to decide on what universities are to do and how they are to do it? These are matters which are currently subject to review by the Higher Education Steering Group chaired by Dr Colin Hunt. The McCarthy Report, taken with other indicators, such as the recently published Employment Control Framework for higher education, indicate that the universities may face challenges in retaining the autonomy set down in the Universities Act 1997.

One Response to “Guest Blogger: Colin Scott”

  1. Ernie Ball Says:

    I wonder if Colm McCarthy and his panel have any sense that Irish academics–unlike most public servants–are part of a globalised academic labour market and that, if conditions are made significantly more onerous here (e.g. obligatory summer teaching terms, pensions levies, extra teaching workloads, etc.), the best will simply leave for greener pastures.

    In reading that section of the report, I felt that much of it was driven by the sort of anecdote-fuelled ressentiment that is a specialty of the Irish media. Of course, some university presidents are also complicit in this, reaping the whirlwind from the wind (and I do mean wind) they have sown. So when a prominent university president takes office and refers to his institution as a “sleeping giant” (rather than, say, a “starving giant”), he plays into this utterly baseless view of lecturers as a bunch of layabouts in need of discipline.

    This is a distinctive trait of Ireland’s third level: draconian changes are regularly made, often in a piecemeal or half-assed way and on the basis of no serious investigation or analysis beyond what “everybody knows.” For example, it is often maintained by those with a particular axe to grind, that Irish universities are “underperforming.” Enormous changes to institutional practice have been introduced on foot of such claims. Has any evidence of this claim–particularly relative to funding per capita–ever been presented? If it has, I’ve never seen it.

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