Ireland reforms attacked by departing union president

Planned reforms of higher education in Ireland have come under fire in a speech by the outgoing president of the sector’s main union.

May 5, 2013

Source: Mike Peel

Marie Clarke, of the Irish Federation of University Teachers, said the country was facing a “very serious crisis in university education”.

Though levels of investment had increased from the mid-1990s, “per capita expenditure remained modest by international standards throughout the period of growth and this expenditure has significantly decreased since 2009”.

An extended recession had meant “major policy decisions…based almost exclusively on reduced resourcing for the sector”, leading to a situation where “the outlook for growth and development is bleak”.

Dr Clarke, who was speaking at the union’s Annual Delegate Conference in Dublin last weekend, said she was worried about plans for an increased role for the private sector in higher education, arguing that “the universal, mutual-solidarity function of public services must remain the priority – not the market”.

She was also wary of “the centralised and technical approach” to reforms proposed by Ireland’s Higher Education Authority, which distributes funding to the sector, and critical of a process of consultation which had brought “an over-reliance on international experts to tell us what is appropriate for our system”.

She was equally unsympathetic to “the over-bureaucratisation of Irish universities at the expense of their core academic teaching and research function”, as revealed by figures showing that non-academic staff in universities and colleges now outnumber the academics.

While most academics had seen their workloads increase and their salaries decline, Dr Clarke called particular attention to the “disgraceful…treatment of our early career researchers and academics”, who now often “have very fragmented employment experiences in the early years of their careers” as they “move from position to position on short-term or part-time contracts”.

Citing evidence that “the impact of Irish research is at an all-time high”, Dr Clarke warned that current levels of activity were being “undermined by declining income levels, increases in staff–student ratios and excessive administrative burdens”.

She noted that the strong emphasis on “collaboration among academics, particularly with reference to bidding for research funding” tended to be “management-led, rather than coming from the nature of the work of existing research teams”, which could only “undermine the organic research process”.

“As academics,” she added, “we must not take instruction from any government minister as to our research priorities and we must preserve and defend our right to academic freedom always.”

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