Academics are very fond of autonomy. The vast majority would be of the view that universities are best left to run themselves with little or no interference from politicians, civil servants or other bureaucrats. There is a lot to be said for that view. When politicians try to get involved in the day-to-day activities of Universities, they usually embarrass themselves, as in the famous Roisin Shortall ‘6-hours-a-week’ intervention.
But how much autonomy should a university have? The academic view is that universities work best when left alone and, in day-to-day terms, that’s probably correct. But extrapolating from one institution to an entire system of institutions is not straightforward. The prevailing academic view is not unlike that of many neoliberal economists who believe that everyone benefits if the market is just left alone with no interference and little regulation. The equivalent of this, in an education context, is the view that the entire education system benefits if each individual institution performs optimally – optimally in terms of its own strategic objectives. Given the left-leaning nature of most academics (I would guess), this view is somewhat ironic.
But for a country with limited financial resources and huge third level participation rates, the system really ought to be planned and managed. But how do we do that without over-managing to the point of destructive interference? A big problem, in my view, is that human beings, or maybe it’s just the male of the species, seem to have a deep-rooted tendency towards systemizing. We seem to be seduced by systems that are neat and tidy. We equate quality and efficiency with tidiness. Mergers, or at least proposals for mergers, emerge naturally from this mindset.
Maybe in the end, we have to realise that an effective and efficient system is not necessarily a neat and tidy one.
We have a pretty untidy system at the moment and we certainly need to prevent further duplication and stop any tendency towards homogeneity. We also need to demand more cooperation between institutions.
We can do these things, however, without getting bogged down in structural changes.