Bemoan the folly of the hour

February 16, 1996

In the week that the Irish cabinet agreed on draft university legislation, Vincent McBrierty examines government participation in university affairs

Political intrusion into the governance of universities, even by well-meaning governments, has been a recurrent feature of higher education policy in Europe over the past three centuries. This tradition is very much alive in the United Kingdom and in Ireland.

Last November, the Irish department of education published a position paper on university legislation that struck at the very heart of universities. The ensuing debate has been lively, even passionate. But it has also been misinformed due to a reliance on terms such as autonomy, independence, transparency, accountability and control, used in an ambiguous and ill-defined way.

They buzz with self-importance, yet lack the sting of insight. Autonomy, for example, is not the same as transparency, accountability or independence: the scholar and statesman Karl Wilhelm von Humboldt argued in 1809 that a university could be dependent on state funding, subject to full accountability and transparency, and yet still be autonomous with the right of self-governance - in other words, a free but state-protected institution.

The proposals in the position paper are not merely an adjustment to a system which has been allowed to develop synergistically. They are the culmination of a programme of systematic intervention which subordinates universities to state bureaucracy in a way that ultimately imperils their ability to respond fully to the needs of society.

The position paper seeks to achieve the following: * harmonised and up-to-date legislation for all universities; * responsiveness to community needs; * external representation on governing bodies with government participating in appointments; * responsible discharge by universities of their duties subject to government oversight.

It appeals to the twin ideals of service to the community and respect for taxpayers' money in justifying the proposed changes.

The recent decision to abolish undergraduate fees to promote greater equity of access has placed an additional strain on the public purse. The wisdom of the move, though a noble ideal in itself, is flawed through lack of the necessary additional and properly funded university places.

It also fails the test of transparency because the fees are folded into the block grant and not directed to the students themselves. The universities now depend almost entirely on state funding. By appealing to the principle that "he/she who pays the piper calls the tune", the minister now claims the right to exercise direct control on behalf of the taxpayer.

Meanwhile, some universities in the UK are being tempted, out of academic and financial frustration, to levy their own charge on top of the "free" education promised by the state but inadequately paid for. Social equity would have been better served by the introduction of a far less costly grant and maintenance scheme favouring those who merited assistance.

Irish universities are richly diverse in their traditions, relative strengths in teaching and research, management style and in their pedagogical approach. The proposed legislation impacts differently on each of them.

The newer universities currently operate under wholly inappropriate legislation. Their feeling for greater academic independence now rightly warms to the proffered reforms.

The constituent colleges of the National University of Ireland also welcome the much sought-after autonomy proposed in the legislation. In contrast, Trinity College Dublin, founded in 1591, faces the prospect of diminished autonomy without obvious compensating benefit.

Management can be judged in terms of transparency and accountability which, in turn, are tested in the day-to-day dealings with the Higher Education Authority, the agency with statutory responsibility for distributing funds to the universities.

The HEA exercises significant control over staffing levels, academic course development, campus development, future planning and so on. Annual budgets are scrutinised, approved, audited and published annually.

The position paper fails to take adequate account of the universities' venerable tradition in responding to the community's needs, a tradition which, incidentally, has bridged long periods of political interference. It is ironic that the unit cost system, which is used to compute the university's grant, is in fact predicated on student contact hours.

Aside from the provision of well-educated graduates, the model ignores service to the community altogether.

For example, there is no credit given for contributions to job creation and inward investment, support for industry, and service to semi-state agencies and government departments, not to mention diverse other beneficial spinoffs to the community at large.

In short, if a university administration were to set out to maximise the grant under the unit cost system, it would henceforth assign junior staff to teach large classes, curtail the duration of undergraduate education as much as possible (a 15-month degree has recently been mooted in the UK), dispense with expensive research, limit student support services and ignore the wider needs of society: in other words, provide highly focused supermarket education.

Universities have been remarkably stable over the centuries, a stability founded on an ethos of freedom of expression, unfettered intellectual curiosity and the facility to challenge conventional wisdom. This is not mere vested interest at work: ethos is inextricably linked to the ethics of universities. Society needs sources of independent critical thought and, in this regard, the universities are on a par with the media and the judiciary.

Can governments be trusted to do the job better? I think not. Both the Irish and British governments have embarked on policies which, in effect impose a culture of compliance on the universities in a way that endangers the special nature and integrity of university education ("Master of the Universities" Fergus Millar, THES, May 1994).

What is the current basis for any future trusting relationship between government and the universities? State support, both direct and indirect, for the universities is inadequate; government policy systematically suppresses rather than encourages service to the community; and the universities are being reduced to the lowest common denominator prevailing in the higher education sector instead of preserving the rich diversity of institutions that pursue complementary educational and vocational missions.

The current debate is not about institutional autonomy per se, but the extent to which institutions' autonomy is required to preserve the intellectual integrity of university education. Universities must be accountable, they must be transparent, they must continue to be responsive to the needs of society; but they must not be politically controlled. With the best will in the world it would be naive to think that political control of the university system would benefit society as a whole. Such control heralds the end of autonomy.

There is a sense of deja vu in recalling Cardinal Newman's observations on the drift away from core values during the last century: "Wise men have lifted up their voices in vain and at length, lest their own institutions should be outshone and should disappear in the folly of the hour, they have been obliged, as far as they could with a good conscience, to humour a spirit which they could not withstand, and make temporising concessions at which they could but inwardly smile."

We can only hope that, on this occasion, the temporising concessions are not irreversibly cast in stone.

Vincent McBrierty is professor of physics at Trinity College Dublin, and a former member of the Higher Education Authority.

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