There has been much discussion in the press over the last few days over two issues affecting the universities: the issuing of an Employment Control Framework by the Higher Education Authority and the delivery of a report to the Minister for Education on the reintroduction of fees for undergraduate education. The two are linked because each has the potential to affect the autonomy of the universities in important ways. More broadly they raise questions of institutional design that apply also to other significant aspects of the machinery for governing the economy concerning the relative autonomy from government ministers of both state-owned enterprises and regulatory bodies. The current fiscal and financial crises are likely to put all of these relationships under pressure and beg the question whether exploiting the capacity for government to exert greater centralized control is simply opportunistic or offers a principled basis for addressing weaknesses. Let me declare at the outset that I am parti pris since, like many contributors to this blog, I hold an academic appointment in a University.
Turning specifically to the universities the Employment Control Framework is reported by the Irish Times to impose restrictions on recruitment of new staff, promotion of existing staff and retention of temporary staff with a linkage between compliance and continuation of state funding. Although issued by the Higher Education Authority it is apparent that the Department of Education and the Department of Finance each had a significant role in shaping the document. The Framework has been widely interpreted as an attack on the autonomy of the Universities and in breach of the provisions of the Universities Act 1997. My learned friend Steve Hedley offers his interpretation of the legal provisions here. There is discussion in the Sunday Tribune of the Irish Federation of University Teachers challenging the Framework in litigation, but in the medium term the legislation may not be important since the government’s effective control of the Oireachtas means that legislation can be changed to give effect to the Government’s favoured position if a court rules against it in judicial review proceedings. The more important question is the normative one whether it is advantageous to the capacities of the nation for ministers to assert more direct control over the universities through control over key staffing issues. Insofar as the position of the university heads may be ascertained it appears to be that such restrictions appear to undermine their flexibility to determine the deployment of their resources to prioritise particular areas of research, to innovate and to match teaching capacity to needs. Under the terms of the legislation the allocation of resources is the responsibility of the HEA, whilst prioritization is a matter for the Universities themselves. This principled separation of responsibilities has been considerably eroded in fact (but not in law) by the shift of resources away from formulaic block grant (based largely on student numbers) towards competitive awards of grants under such schemes as PRTLI, SIF and the programmes of Science Foundation Ireland and the Research Councils. Universities have been incentivised by such competitions to shift resources into areas favoured by the government. Competition is not the only mechanism at play, since most schemes have a significant element of peer review and government deploys its hierarchical capacity to steer and approve decisions (with the potential for importing political priorities) within many of the schemes.
The discussion around the reintroduction of fees linked to a student loans scheme has the potential to affect the autonomy of the universities in the other direction, to the extent that the scheme permits the universities to grow their revenues directly through undergraduate student recruitment. The government has not yet committed to any of the variety of mechanisms which have been proposed (discussed in yesterday’s Sunday Business Post), suffice it to say that the separation of upfront fees from a loans scheme is likely to give the universities greater autonomy, whereas the linkage of additional revenue to a graduate tax is liable to give the government greater control.
The relationship between the two issues lies in the issue of funding dependence. Permitting universities to charge undergraduate fees, separate from a related loans scheme, reduces the capacity of the government to threaten funding sanctions to universities which breach government requirement s such as those set down in the Framework.
How does this all link to the Irish economy? It is widely held that the role of the universities in providing research, stimulating innovation (not only in science and technology, but also through translation of research into policy and creative domains) and in education at both undergraduate and graduate levels is relevant to Ireland’s future economic capacity (although there is disagreement on the extent of the universities’ significance). Comparative analysis demonstrates that there is no single model of university-government relations within the other OECD member states. The French government retains a high degree of central control over key aspects educational provision and academic appointments, whilst a mixed economy of public and private provision in the United States gives substantial autonomy to many higher education institutions. The UK balances substantial autonomy for the universities with a form of hyper-regulation over teaching and research quality which has never been seen in Ireland. The Irish regime under which universities are required to self-regulate explicitly (teaching) or implicitly (research) is a style which I refer to as meta-regulation. There is already a meta-regulatory alternative to the Employment Control Framework in the form of an Irish Universities Association document which caps employment numbers, but under which the control is exercised by the universities themselves.
A tangential issue arising from the Employment Control Framework is whether there is a continuing role for the Higher Education Authority if, in fact, ministers are determining conditions of grant for universities. A key aspect of the UK regime is the role of buffer organisations (such as the Higher Education Funding Council for England) which both funds and holds higher education institutions to account for their expenditure. In a fairly similar regime of universities governance to that of the UK the Australian government abolished the buffer institution, the Australian Universities Commission, in 1976 and took its functions in funding and oversight into the education ministry. Given current strictures on public finances and controversies about the added value of quasi-autonomous non-governmental organisations (quangos) an agency that cannot demonstrate its distinctive role may be under threat.
Whilst these issues of institutional design can hardly be neutral in their effects in terms of the role of universities (and others such as state-owned enterprises and regulators) in sustaining and developing the Irish economy, we appear to have more questions than answers in the search for defensible (I would not dare suggest optimal) solutions.