Common wisdom suggests the state will not be ready to co-fund the IMF-EU deal by mid 2012. Another deal will accompany a slash in payments to the social sectors including Education. Is the third level sector ready for such a crisis?
The Irish State pays a core grant to our third-level institutions for each undergraduate student, and, in an equal amount, funds the majority of research and postgraduate fees (scholarships). The latter is managed by a proliferation of various third level education bodies which we label Quangos. The sector has developed an unnaturally high dependency on the public finances. This dependence is currently anywhere between 65 to 88 per cent in most Higher Education Institutes
The funding of third-level Quangos now represent an unsustainable overhead on the sector, as this form of finance flowing from the State is on the decline. The indirect costs or the administrative structures that have mushroomed during the boom (which distributed State money) are now vestigial and are turning into a major financial headache and constraint on the sector. The HEI’s must replace these funds with international research grants and postgraduate students. The Quangos are largely ill equipped to induce and manage this change.
The Universities, while undertaking many good reforms, made the mistake of allowing indirect costs inside universities to grow to over 50 per cent. Frontline lecturers’ salaries now only account for 25 per cent of the overall cost of the sector, when we include the overheads of Quangos. Academic salaries have collapsed by 25 per cent (net) since 2008. Most academic units have also lost up to 15 per cent of their staff via retirements or voluntary quits. These savings are returned and retained by the State and not by the Universities. The oversized non-academic and undersized academic units are finding it a challenge to refocus efforts into securing funds from outside of Ireland. Academics need to be empowered to make such change happen.
What is the solution proposed by State and its agencies to cope with the current crisis?
An imposed agreement, under the false premises of Croke Park, to increase productivity levels of declining numbers of frontline lecturing staff is their answer. Not surprisingly, these productivity increases can never pay for what are now largely indirect costs in the sector. New income streams are needed: higher levels of international students who pay fees, more EU and Global research funding successes, and private sources.
Yet, all hiring and promotions (whether funded by the State or not), that have come under the State’s employment control, are now banned. The most recent instalment of employment control wants to redeploy academics within and across institutions. There are even conditions on the nature of research that is allowed. The focus of such is on the disciplines that will drive the smart economy (see http://des-fitzgerald.com/ecf/).
This is a ludicrous attempt to turn academics into public servants. The agents of the State seem to have no idea how knowledge is created and dispersed. Academics in a global market face competition from serious creators of knowledge and find every international student and grant is a hard battle won. Publishing in the leading journals and university presses is like winning Olympic medals in terms of a lifetime dedication to the cause. Academic credentials need to be first class, a Ph.D. from a top University and ground breaking publications. Academics need the time and space to perform at these levels. Imposing constraints on academic freedom and tenure will only give our competitors an advantage over us, deter international students and grants from coming here and could rupture our growing reputation in scholarship internationally. The idea that an academic in UCD that gets a research grant from a major donor should first see if there is someone surplus to requirements inside UCD and then search in other universities, or even State departments, before hiring a post-doc clearly indicates to me that the state has no idea how knowledge is created. Incentives are for academics to leave Ireland rather than refocus efforts.
What do we do?
Universities have to realise the State is broke. Just like the State should have understood the Irish Banks were broke, now the Universities have to drop the State like a hot potato (Taxpayers and the IMF-EU would approve).
Trinity by the nature of its charter and academic ownership of its property can break from State faster than most.
The first move would be to establish income streams from undergraduate fees, increase the number of international students and external research income.
Most Universities like Trinity already have private enterprise on campus in terms of the library shop, rented accommodation, a Foundation office and Campus Companies. These could turn a higher profit to fertilise academic scholarship.
The University of Dublin, and the National University of Ireland, could create new colleges. Let’s call the one alongside Trinity College, “Christchurch College”. Christchurch could hire and promote and pay pensions on a private basis funded by the new income streams. All existing contracts could be honoured by Trinity College.
The nature of self governance in a third-level institution means that academics rule. They can promote academic scholarship, and while doing so they can control all non-academic units and can easily restructure the internal indirect costs over-time and reduce them to less than 30 per cent, retaining these savings to invest in Education and Research.
The top slicing of finance by education Quangos would be removed and most importantly their ability to constrain academic freedom to create knowledge for use in a global society would come to a deserved end.
Some universities have endowments and assets that could buy the limited time to achieve such academic and financial security.
Even if the State does not default the case for the third-level institutions to break away from the influence of the State and its agencies is growing with every minute.
The Irish State is a sinking ship and academics need to escape on lifeboats labelled ‘University Charters for use when Academic Scholarship is put at risk from the State, Church or private interests’. The Founders’ bequest throughout the centuries gives academics an instrument for use when academic scholarship is threatened. Academics need to use it now.