In my opinion: For all their faults, our universities aren't doing a bad job
Published 22/09/2010 | 05:00
Last week's disclosure of unauthorised payments to hundreds of academics could not have come at a worse time for the universities.
College heads will face a deserved grilling at the Public Accounts Committee tomorrow when they are asked to justify the bonuses, allowances and generous starting salaries paid to so many without let or hindrance.
The likely outcome is more regulation and a further erosion of autonomy of our universities which, for all their many faults, are not doing a bad job.
This was acknowledged by the Comptroller and Auditor General John Buckley who referred to last year's EU report that showed that Irish universities are among the most efficient in Europe and its graduates among the most valued by employers.
And while Trinity and UCD have slipped a little in international league tables, the fact remains that all seven Irish universities, along with the Dublin Institute of Technology, are in the top 500 in the world. No room for complacency but not a bad record either.
Whether or not they can retain their position is an open question, given the cuts in government aid.
They are not alone in this. A recent study by the European Universities Association (EUA) tracked the cuts across the continent.
Ours are at the higher end, but not as bad as Latvia, whose universities had an initial cut of 48pc last year, followed by an 18pc cut this year.
A few countries, such as Finland and Germany, have protected and even increased spending on their universities to help them get out of the current economic difficulties but there is little chance of that happening here, given the dire state of public finances.
At a conference in Bologna last week, university leaders from nearly 40 countries attended an EUA conference to discuss how to respond to the cuts in government spending by diversifying income -- in other words, tapping other sources.
It's easier said than done.
Philanthropic donations, spin-off companies, contractual work with the private and corporate sector, joint research projects with companies, leasing specialist research facilities were all mentioned.
Two conclusions were reached -- core government funding must continue and universities must be given enough autonomy to leverage funds from outside sources.
There are dangers involved. Being too hungry for external funds may distract universities from their own mission and focus, the conference was warned.
An overdependence on the private sector can also result in too much application-focused research at the cost of fundamental and curiously driven research.
But the elephant in the room -- as one delegate described it -- is tuition fees or some form of graduate contribution.
He was talking about those countries, such as Ireland, that don't charge fees at present.
The current Government chooses not to see that elephant but the next one will have to.