Given the ongoing debate over the possible reintroduction of student payment of third level fees, and the dangers that lurk there for the universities, a rather unnerving thought occurs to me. It may be that the best universities in Europe are not yet private universities, but Irish universities seeking the freedom to set their own fees might decide to “de-nationalise” and “go private” by means of a Unilateral Declaration of Indepdence. My point is not that Universities should declare independence from government on the matter of fees, but that they should declare independence from government in all matters. There would be steep legal and regulatory obstacles to surmount, but assuming that this can be done, it would give any universities that did so complete freedom of action, not only in the realm of fees, but across the board.
Of course, it will never happen. The universities’ ties to the government are very strong indeed, and go well past the question of fees. There are the various research councils and funding bodies which are a vital part of the universities’ cash flow, and they would not want to jeopardise that. Moreover, the government has recently indicated that it will acquire the universities’ pension fund assets; this will afford the government some cash flow in the short term, and meet a significant shortfall in the funds in the long term; and the universities would not want to jeopardise that.
But it’s nevertheless an interesting – if rather alarming – thought to ponder.