The Modern Irish University: How did it come to this?

Introduction

2013 was an interesting year in education. It was the year of technological universities, university clusters, bigger-than-ever research centres of excellence; suggestions for some ‘back-to-the-future’ changes to the CAO system; the usual angst about the Leaving Cert; a sudden love for the German apprenticeship system; proposals for changes to the Junior Cert, more and more worries about ‘managerialism’ and ‘corporatism’; ‘Defend the University’ campaigns; ever more unrealistic expectations as to universities’ capacity to deliver new products and companies; the ongoing obsession with the ‘knowledge economy’; staff recruitment embargoes; a sudden interest in MOOCS; further growth in the international rankings business and a number of end-of-year documents by the HEA, outlining plans to evaluate what universities and IoTs do. The sector continued to get a bashing from columnists who haven’t done their homework.

All of this comment and discussion can be overwhelming because much of what we read about in education is predominantly negative. But here’s an alternative perspective: the third level sector is doing a pretty good job in the circumstances and many of the so-called threats to the system are simply a sign of changing times. While it is common to hear that the third level system is in crisis, I would be more inclined to say that it faces enormous challenges, mostly related to funding. So, in this post, I am going to review the basic environment in which the universities are operating and how that environment interacts with the university. I’m also going to examine how the universities have responded and how they can respond in the future. My basic thesis is that the current trends in university education are an inevitable consequence of events and transformations that are occurring on a global scale and not a reflection of any sort of ideological shift. You won’t see the words ‘neoliberal’ or ‘managerialism’ or ‘corporatism’ mentioned in this post!

Many of the current trends in university management and operation are entirely understandable and even if they have not always being implemented in the most effective and palatable way, they are, at their core, designed to make a better, more accountable system that is more equitable and more responsive to the needs of society. One thing, however, is absolutely sure: there is no going back. Universities are more than ever seen as the existing to serve society and that means educating people not only in the traditional education-for-education’s-sake sense but in providing them with the abilities and skills to succeed in the modern workplace. Because, more than anything, a person’s self-esteem is built upon their ability to obtain fruitful employment and in the university system we must never forget this. That means that we must keep up with developments that take place outside the university gates and we must make what we do relevant (at least in part) to the world. We cannot continue to use self-serving arguments that we know best and everyone is best served by our being allowed to have complete control over what we do and how we do it.

One of my great beliefs in life is that things often happen as the net result of a wide range of forces. I believe that things turn out the way they do because of a complex mixture of beliefs, events, trends, fashions, technological changes and the occasional transformational event. When I look at the Irish third level sector, I see a sector that is affected by the recent prosperity of the Celtic Tiger years, the recession years since 2008, the massive growth in technology – especially online technologies – the culture of accountability and the modern tendency to be almost obsessed with quantifying everything we do.

The Celtic Tiger Years

It is commonly suggested that education is a key driver of economic growth. No doubt an educated population is an essential component of any successful, modern economy – not to mention a functioning society – but the link between education and economic prosperity is not one-way. There is no doubt that as well as being an effect of education, economic prosperity is also a cause of education. The relationship between the two is complex at best.

During the Celtic Tiger years – and the prosperous years prior to the madness – the participation rates at third level increased hugely. The reasons for this are complex and worthy of a thesis in itself but they involve all sorts of factors from the decline of older industries in the wake of globalisation to political and academic exhortations to incessant talk of the ‘knowledge’ economy. Most importantly, it probably reflected the desire of newly prosperous parents to provide their children with the opportunities that they had not had themselves. Of course, it all became self-perpetuating and soon a third level education was a pre-requisite for a huge variety of jobs, even when it was not clear at all why such a level of education was required.

Whatever its causes, the increase in participation rates has been the proverbial game changer. Whereas in the past, the activities of universities were the concern of a relatively small elite, now everybody has a stake in how the universities function. From being like a private school for the professional classes, the university is now like the non-fee paying secondary school down the road. It is expected to serve society – and rightly so. It is expected to be run efficiently; academic staff are expected to work hard – as are secondary school teachers – and they are expected to be accountable. The university is no longer some sort of mysterious institution where posh people go to study; it is very much part of the fabric of society. In that context, the old university is gone and while we have to strive to ensure that we continue to provide as ‘classic’ a university education as possible (because it has many good characteristics), we have to realise that what we do must be directly relevant to the needs of society. The university is no longer on the fringe; it is very much at the heart of society.

For me, the increase in participation rates is the single most important driver of change in the university sector. I do not see any ideological battle going on but a fundamental change in the nature of the university, a change that we cannot ignore and which is unlikely to be undone.

The recession and greater expectations

The problem with the increase in the participation rates – and decisions like the one to abolish fees – was that they created a very unstable system. Education is expensive and the entire system was always going to be vulnerable to a financial shock. And we got one. After 2008, the State started to run an enormous budget deficit and unemployment increased dramatically. Now we had a huge education sector and not enough money to run it. So, more was demanded of the sector. We were still encouraged to increase our student numbers despite cuts in funding. Indeed, student numbers had to be increased to generate the funding required simply to survive. This policy was driven by three things: political cynicism, political naiveté and demand. Politicians knew that in a time of massive unemployment, education provided them with some room for manoeuvre. Young people could at least ‘hide out’ for four years and being educated is as good a thing to do as anything when there are no jobs. Furthermore, many politicians actually believe – and perhaps they’re right – in the whole idea of the ‘knowledge economy’, the idea that only by educating ourselves to the hilt will we be able to compete in a globalised world. Furthermore, now that third level education was commonplace, there was no going back and suggesting a rationalisation of the sector was a non-starter.

Thus, the train kept rolling down the tracks at the same speed but the fuel was running out. The Government then effectively said that it’s up to the driver to find the fuel. So ever since, universities have been rolling along in a sort of Mad Max landscape, desperately seeking fuel. Now, research is seen as a source of income, as are foreign students. Hence the universities send delegations to China, India, Brazil, wherever. It’s not some sort of corporate ideology – it’s a necessity because whatever those of a left-wing persuasion might say, there is simply not enough wealth in the state – at least the state that we know and are likely to know – to fund the education system that we have created. Along with these efforts to increase income are the increased efforts to wring more out of the existing system. Thus teaching loads are increased as academic staff are not replaced. In addition there is greater focus on industry-university interactions in research to generate income through spin-offs and IP etc. In a time when the survival of the university is an ongoing battle, it is entirely understandable that those activities that bring funds into the college are valued the most – at least by ‘management’. The need to pay its way then affects the entire ethos of the university and there is no doubt that this leads to the marginalisation of many academics, especially in the humanities.

It is in this context that a university like DCU can become the “University of Enterprise”. But the history of DCU is interesting. It was born as NIHE Dublin during recessionary times in the late 1970s / early 1980s. It had an unashamedly business-oriented ethos then and, after some time when it wasn’t too sure what it was, it has gone back to its roots. The important point, however, is that the idea of a university serving the needs of an economy and a society that is struggling through recession, is not new. The difference now is that essentially all universities are going down this route and, more than anything, this reflects the scale of the challenges confronting the education sector and the country, challenges brought about by the combination of the expansionary years of the Celtic Tiger and the post-2008 recession.

Along with all the changes that universities needed to make simply to survive, the politicians wanted universities to do more than educate the population. Universities were to become drivers of economic growth, especially growth in high-tech sectors. The university was now expected to play its part – directly – in product development and job creation. This process had started before the recession – and one can argue about how realistic it is – but the sheer awfulness of the unemployment figures served to further spur on this new vision of universities as hot-beds of industrial innovation. But it was never solely a case of the politicians enforcing this vision on down-trodden academics who just wanted to do ‘curiosity-driven’ research. No, many academics bought into the process, partly out of pragmatism, or even cynicism, but also because many, quite legitimately, felt that universities needed to do more. Furthermore, many would never have seen themselves as ‘purist’ scientists but gained their satisfaction from building up large centres trying to solve real world problem. It is in this kind of environment that researchers, who excelled at grant-writing, networking etc., thrived. And why not? Success in the modern funding environment often requires enormous amounts of work, and there is no prima facie reason why such work should not be valued as much – by academics – as ‘purely’ academic work might be. Just because expectations might be unrealistic that does not mean that what might be called enterprise-driven research is not of equal value – academically.

Within this environment, many researchers have obviously become somewhat marginalised and that is regrettable because universities need diversity in their research profile. But as I have said before, defenders of what might be called ‘traditional academia’ need to be much more convincing in their arguments. It is no longer enough to talk in the abstract. People want to hear specifics. Furthermore, arguments put forward must be evidence-based. For example, I have read on a number of occasions that a traditional university education – i.e. one free from the ‘meddling’ of industry – somehow serves to better educate young people in key skills like critical thinking and creativity. I don’t see this. I see no reason why an education that is responsive to the needs of industry must devalue critical and independent thinking. The raison d’etre of engineering disciplines is their connection with industry but many of the world’s most creative and independent thinkers have been engineers.

 The changing technological landscape

The key way in which technological change has affected the university is in that technology has played a major role in globalisation. Now universities exist in a global environment and we are no longer compared with our sister colleges across the city or down the motorway, but all over the world. This is partly a positive because we can learn from other universities wherever they may be. It can also be a negative, however, because too often the performance of our universities is compared with that of universities in countries that are quasi-democratic at best (Singapore), or culturally very different (Finland).

Another area where technology has played a role is in making what we do in the universities much more transparent. Our colleagues and even the ‘man in the street’ can easily find out how productive – in terms of research and scholarship – each and every one of us is. He or she, with a bit of effort, can probably make some reasonably accurate judgement as to the quality of an academic’s output as well as to the quantity of it. Academics can easily see how much teaching their colleagues are doing. All of this information makes the academic environment much more competitive but also more ‘honest’. There is no hiding place anymore. If you’re doing very little teaching or producing little scholarship or research, you will be found out.

Accountability

Although certain sections of society, especially Irish society, seem to remain maddeningly unaccountable, there is no doubt that we live in an age when greater accountability is expected of all sorts of professions. Perhaps it is the effect of the internet, but everybody now has the opportunity to have their voice heard on a whole host of matters. Whether it is politicians, or medics, or teachers or lawyers, or tradespeople like plumbers and roofers, there is a growing conviction that ineptitude or poor service or negligence is no longer acceptable. People are much more likely to challenge authority. In DCU, we have ‘Teaching Meetings’ in which student representatives attend and they are unafraid to express their unhappiness with all sorts of things from timetables to library facilities to the teaching methodologies of individual academics. Such a forum would have been completely unheard of twenty years ago when lecturers were unaccountable and teaching standards were often appallingly low. Current efforts to introduce measures of academic quality and productivity have emerged in this wider context and do not really represent an effort by university management to introduce ‘surveillance’ of its staff but reflect a wider trend in society towards making everyone accountable in whatever they do. This trend towards accountability is seen in the need for all sorts of institutions and workplaces having to meet standards laid down by statute. In this cultural environment, it would seem to me to be a mighty challenge to construct an argument whereby one can suggest that academics might be almost unique in society in not having to justify that they might be working effectively; justifying their salaries in other words. The argument that the greater good might be served by just leaving us alone to do our own thing is self-serving in the extreme.

One of the problems in this whole area is that academics, especially those of us who have been in the business for quite a while, have become accustomed to what is an extremely unusual – at least in a societal context – level of freedom. We resent being told what to do and thus we see any moves to create what many would regard as a normal working environment as somehow the act of sinister managers.

Of course there must be a happy medium because unlike most professions, many academics work extremely hard because they choose to do so. They love what they do and many are fiercely ambitious as well. It is a huge challenge therefore to introduce procedures that make us accountable – and which create an equitable workplace – without spoiling the good will that leads to many academics – not all – going beyond the call of duty both in teaching and research.

 The Numbers Game

We live in a time where everyone is obsessed with quantifying things. Sport for example is now a numbers-obsessed activity, whether it is the number of kilometres a soccer player has covered in a match or the speed at which a cricket bowler is bowling or the average weight of a rugby pack. Bloggers are obsessed with ‘hits’, Facebook users with ‘likes’, academics with papers published, citations and grant income (academics are the worst ‘quantifiers’); Twitterers with ‘followers’. This tendency to want to quantify everything pervades so much of what happens in the world that it is absolutely unsurprising that it has permeated into the world of management. The thing about quantifying – and using numbers as a proxy for quality – is that it is easy. With modern technology, we can pretty much quantify everything and it is easy to be seduced into thinking that numbers mean something. This is one of the fallacies behind the current fad with ‘big data’, in least in my humble opinion. There is absolutely no guarantee that by trawling through terabytes of information, something of genuine meaning will be extracted. Maybe it’s worth finding out though.

It is in this context that efforts to introduce workload documents and cumbersome processes whereby academics fill time sheets of sorts have arisen. They will fail utterly in their objectives which are surely to make academics more productive. I have a theory that nobody actually believes in the numbers approach but managers introduce this kind of thing because they have to be seen to be doing something to make academics more accountable; and getting academics to fill out forms is relatively easy. Really managing them though is hard.

Of course, the way to make academics productive and accountable – in a meaningful way – is to have good management at local level. Heads of Department need to be people who actually want to manage, who like working with people, who see the success of a department as reflecting on them, who have a strong sense of integrity and fairness. I’m not sure such people exit in the university sector because most academics are not good managers (at least of people) by nature. If they were, they wouldn’t be academics.

And so we do what do what everyone else is doing. We create tables of numbers. And the HEA will do it too at a system level although they probably don’t have much alternative.

The future

The important point in all of this is that what we are seeing in academia is no different from what is happening in the world around us.  There is no ideological battle going on for the soul of the university. Universities exist within society and society is changing. That’s all there is to it.

Universities, however, are facing huge challenges. In the sciences and engineering, we need a strategy for continuous capital investment. Maybe industry could put its money where its mouth is and play a role here. We need to deal with the loss of academic staff and the need for new blood. Notwithstanding the need for universities to help solve some of the world’s grand challenges – climate change, hunger, water, energy – we need to ensure that there is diversity within the university research profile. While recognising that the third level education of today is not what it was 20 years ago, we need to guard against excessive ‘dumbing down’. We need to break the rote learning cycle. We need to articulate clearly what the role of the humanities is in the modern university. We need to base all our decisions in education – at least insofar as possible – on evidence and avoid succumbing to fads. We need must avoid getting bogged down in reconfiguration, forced collaborations and filling out of spread sheets; and we need to start thinking seriously how we can have effective middle managers within the university system.

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About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
This entry was posted in education, Research. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to The Modern Irish University: How did it come to this?

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » The Modern Irish University: How did it come to this?

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