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public-sector workers agreed to cooperate on money-saving
reforms in exchange for a promise from the government to
make no further pay cuts or forced layoffs. “I’m not a service
provider,” Colin Coulter, a lecturer in sociology at NUI
Maynooth and an outspoken critic of these ideas, fumed
about them before a lunchtime discussion in a steeply banked
DCU lecture hall packed largely with fellow academics. “I’m
a lecturer. What the hell is a learning outcome? We teach
social theory. One of the expected learning outcomes is to be
confused.”
Faculty, in turn, direct their anger at administrators,
whom they consider meddlesome and overpaid. It didn’t
help when news broke that UCD gave nearly $1.7 million
in bonuses to top employees over ten years as a reward for
landing a collective $112 million a year in grants and other
income. The government says the payments were illegal, and
wants the money back. Trinity College also may be fined for
slipping retroactive raises to 27 staff in spite of a moratorium
on promotions. (The university says the promotions were
made before the moratorium took effect.)
Nor did the university presidents’ knack for public
relations serve them when they made no response at all
to an appeal from the then-education minister that they
take a voluntary pay cut. “What I hear constantly among
my members is, if you look back at the
negative stories in the Irish media over
the last five years over who has brought
universities into disrepute, it’s the senior
people who are paying themselves very
high salaries,” said Jennings.
Administrators do bear some fault,
said Philip Nolan, incoming president
of NUI Maynooth. “The controversy
surrounding that pay was damaging,
there’s no doubt about that,” said Nolan,
who is moving on from his job as registrar
and deputy president at UCD. “At the
moment the public sector in general are
natural lightning rods for public anger.
And in a crisis like this, people are going
to look for somebody to blame.”
For an OECD conference called
“Doing More with Less,” Nolan
coauthored a paper laying out
four choices for Irish universities to rebound, without
recommending any particular one: capping enrollment
and cutting costs; increasing enrollment to generate more
income; increasing student fees; or enrolling more students
who pay higher fees—meaning, in this case, students from
outside the EU. (In fact, the government has set a goal
of increasing the number of international students at its
universities by 50 percent over the next five years, bringing in
nearly another $1.3 billion a year.)
But he said that, in general, the politicians need to stop
micromanaging.
“If there was one thing we would ask for it’s that the
government would stop worrying about the details of how
we do things,” Nolan said. “What the government needs to
do is set goals for the sector, agree the outcomes, and then
get off the pitch.”
That’s unlikely in a country so deep in crisis, and with so
much at stake.
“To misquote Seamus Heaney,” Jennings said, after
thinking the situation through for a moment: “Hope and
history aren’t rhyming. In this case they’re clashing.”
u
Jon Marcus is a writer based in Boston who covers higher
education in the U.S. for the (UK)
Times Higher Education
magazine.
“The teaching part of what we do has been downgraded to
second place behind the research part,” says Mike Jennings,
general secretary of the Irish Federation of University Teachers.
Disproportionately
dependent on the
government, Irish
universities have 85
percent of their costs
covered by public
funding. That makes
them particularly
vulnerable in
tough times.