cearta.ie

the Irish for rights

Even as Public Funding to Universities Decreases, Government Preoccupation with Control Increases


I have the following op-ed in the current edition of the University Times:

Even as Public Funding to Universities Decreases, Government Preoccupation with Control Increases


The political agenda looks for control over the raising and expenditure of funding received from non-state sources.

TCD front, via University TimesAs students return to college, the politicians return to Leinster House. Both students and politicians are facing very interesting terms, and each group has the capacity to make life difficult for the other.

One of the issues on the returning government’s plate is the vexed question of third-level funding. All sides are agreed that our higher education sector is woefully underfunded. The ongoing fall of Irish universities in international rankings is due, in no small part, to the funding cutbacks that began in 2003 and were cumulatively deepened after the 2008 global financial crisis. A recent report by an expert group, chaired by trade unionist Peter Cassells, made several recommendations on the future funding for higher education, and any choice the government makes will be controversial.

Two questions will have to be answered. The first is: who pays? The second is: how much? As to who pays, as the autumn wears on, we will hear arguments about the merits of state funding against upfront student fees and against deferred payment of student fees. And the more students are required to pay up front, the more likely it is that there will be student unrest, joining the protests the government is already facing from Dublin Bus workers, secondary school teachers and water charge opponents. In this way, students have the capacity to make life difficult for the government.

As to how much is to be paid, if the level of fees is not changed, then it will not matter from the perspective of the universities whether payment comes from students, their banks or the government. What the universities really want is the ability to set their own fees.

In the mouths of politicians, reform is often a synonym for control. When they speak of reforming a sector, they mean placing it under greater political control

When the British government introduced a system of fees paid by students in England and Wales, they softened the blow by introducing a cap on the amount of fees universities could charge. This was partly for political reasons to prevent the top universities charging US-style fees and partly for policy reasons to encourage universities to compete against each other by charging lower fees. These hopes proved in vain. Pretty soon, the cap became a target with more than half of universities in England and Wales now charging the maximum, and the number doing so increases every year.

From the perspective of Irish universities, this would be worst of all possible worlds. There would be student unrest at having to pay high fees, but the fees being charged would be capped by the government and would not reflect the costs associated with courses or the funding needs of the individual institutions.

The Minister for Education and Skills, Richard Bruton, accepts the need for investment in the long-term funding of our higher education system, but he has recently suggested that such investment hinges on reform of the sector. However, he has no sense of what such reforms might be, and he provides no real argument as to why they may even be necessary. The reference to reform is simply the unthinking application of a tired political dogma. Rather than correcting the mistakes of the past, it will compound them.

For, in the mouths of politicians, reform is often a synonym for control. When they speak of reforming a sector, they mean placing it under greater political control. Greater control of the third-level sector has long been on the political agenda. In this way, the government has the capacity to make life difficult for the universities.

The legislative programme published by the government after the election envisages legislation to modernise the governance structures of the universities and to ensure compliance with government guidelines on remuneration, allowances, pensions and staffing numbers. Any such legislation should properly balance three principles.

The first is Oireachtas oversight over universities’s accounts (by means of the Office of the Comptroller and Auditor General and the Public Accounts Committee). The second is Oireachtas control over funding provided by the Oireachtas to the universities. The third is the principle of institutional autonomy, which ensures that universities can independently regulate their affairs, and it is, at present, secured by legislation.

It is equally important for the government to accept the principle of institutional autonomy by refraining from asserting control over money from other sources

The first two principles, Oireachtas oversight and Oireachtas control, are related but separate. As the recent clash between NAMA and the Comptroller and Auditor General demonstrates, public oversight of the accounts of public bodies is good practice, whatever the source of those bodies’ funding. And control by the Oireachtas, of funding provided by the Oireachtas, is good practice, whatever oversight arrangements are in place. These distinctions are important when it is realised that many public bodies receive funding from sources other than the Oireachtas. Whilst oversight by Oireachtas of the raising and expenditure of such funding is entirely appropriate, there is far less justification for control by the Oireachtas over the raising and expenditure of funding received from sources other than the Oireachtas. The case for such control has to be established, not merely asserted. And the case for such control is not established merely by virtue of oversight.

Given the ongoing financial crisis, Irish universities have increasingly been successful in raising funding from sources other than the government, such as EU research funding, and philanthropy. In Trinity, these other sources now account for about half of our income, and that proportion is increasing every year. However, even as the amount of public funding decreases, government preoccupation with political control increases. Of course, it is important for the universities to render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s by accepting the principle of Oireachtas control over Oireachtas money. But it is equally important for the government to accept the principle of institutional autonomy by refraining from asserting control over money from other sources. If it does not, the government will make life very difficult indeed for the universities.

One Response to “Even as Public Funding to Universities Decreases, Government Preoccupation with Control Increases”

  1. […] Higher Education (Reform) Bill and the longer-threatened Universities (Amendment) Bill (critiqued here, here, here, and here). And the Technological Universities Bill 2015 remains on the Dáil Order […]

Leave a Reply

 

Welcome

Me in a hatHi there! Thanks for dropping by. I'm Eoin O'Dell, and this is my blog: Cearta.ie - the Irish for rights.

"Cearta" really is the Irish word for rights, so the title provides a good sense of the scope of this blog.

In general, I write here about private law, free speech, and cyber law; and, in particular, I write about Irish law and education policy.

Academic links
Academia.edu
ORCID

Subscribe

  • RSS Feed
  • RSS Feed
  • Subscribe via Email
  • Twitter
  • LinkedIn

Archives by month

Categories by topic

My recent tweets

Blogroll (or, really, a non-blogroll)

What I'd like for here is a simple widget that takes the list of feeds from my existing RSS reader and displays it here as a blogroll. Nothing fancy. I'd love a recommendation, if you have one.

I had built a blogroll here on my Google Reader RSS subscriptions. Google Reader produced a line of html for each RSS subscription category, each of which I pasted here. So I had a list of my subscriptions as my blogroll, organised by category, which updated whenever I edited Google Reader. Easy peasy. However, with the sad and unnecessary demise of that product, so also went this blogroll. Please take a moment to mourn Google Reader. If there's an RSS reader which provides a line of html for the list of subscriptions, or for each RSS subscription category as Google Reader did, I'd happily use that. So, as I've already begged, I'd love a recommendation, if you have one.

Meanwhile, please bear with me until I find a new RSS+Blogroll solution

Thanks,

Eoin.

Licence

Creative Commons License

This blog is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial 4.0 International License. I am happy for you to reuse and adapt my content, provided that you attribute it to me, and do not use it commercially. Thanks. Eoin

Credit where it’s due

The image in the banner above is a detail from a photograph of the front of Trinity College Dublin night taken by Melanie May.

Others whose technical advice and help have proven invaluable in keeping this show on the road include Dermot Frost, Karlin Lillington, Daithí Mac Síthigh, and Antoin Ó Lachtnáin.

Thanks to Blacknight for hosting.