Conor Capplis – Editor
The government’s decade-long underfunding of universities has presented the sector with a myriad of issues, and the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed unreliable non-exchequer sources of income. Staff and students nationwide are crying out for the government to act and reintroduce the funding levels seen before the last recession. Universities like UCD have survived by remodelling their structures to increase income from international students and commercial activities. State agencies have increased in size and power dramatically, reducing funds and decision-making power of Universities. Critics have widely condemned the universities for their “commercialisation” and the government for halving funding over the past decade. This interview is part of a series that seeks to address the key issues in higher education today, and how to solve them.
Professor Patrick Paul Walsh of University College Dublin’s (UCD) School of Politics and International Relations, specialises in sustainable development studies and international development. He is also a senior advisor to the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Solutions Network. Walsh has witnessed the decline in the academy over the last decade and seen the rise in university oversight and drop in funding. The College Tribune interviewed Prof Walsh to get a deeper understanding and analysis of the issues facing universities today and how we ended up here.
Top-Down Funding and the Rise of the Quangos
Walsh takes issue with the increasing power held by government agencies (quangos) and how funds granted by the government aren’t adequately reaching academics and students.
He says, in the past, universities were in economic cycle terms “countercyclical”, where third level institutions would do extremely well during times of financial recession. “In a deep recession, student numbers would rise for universities right across the world, because, when people can’t get jobs, they go on to do undergraduates and stay on to do masters. When people get laid off, they also come back to the university.”
Walsh says when he spent time in Columbia University, they showed him figures for their intake in students during periods of financial recession up to 2015 and says that they “were really flourishing.”
“One thing that we’ve got to remember is that universities over the ages survive. One of our biggest strengths is that demand by students is pretty countercyclical. So, in the bad times, [higher education] can do very well.”
Walsh asks the question; how did higher education institutions get into trouble after the last recession? He explains: “The model of funding turned into what I call ‘top-down’ funding, away from ‘bottom-up funding.” As universities began to receive funding in a “block grant” from the State and no longer in direct tuition fees to each faculty, there were big changes.
Previously, fees were allocated from the “bottom up”, giving popular subjects control over their financials, which Walsh says, “empowered the schools.” He says the financial control of the individual schools was removed when one block grant was allocated from the government to the university, to pay for student tuition fees. He also says large blocks of philanthropic donations came into the universities around this time too.
For the first time ever, Walsh explains, large blocks of funds were coming into the higher education sector, with top-down money for education, capital projects and research.
Universities began hiring more executives to manage the money. The universities began saying: “We need to be nimble. We need to have executive powers. We need to manage this money.” Walsh says that because of this, the power left the student and academic bodies.
He also says that while academic promotions and free fees seemed appetising at the time, “maybe students and staff were not careful about the rise in managerialism.”
He says the governance also changed outside of the University, most notably in the quangos. He added “a tier of governance” has become “quite problematic” as those running the quangos are not academics involved with teaching, learning and research.
According to Walsh’s rough calculations, “potentially up to 40% of all money coming to Irish universities, and third level institutes, did not arrive because it was embedded in overheads of government quangos.”
He compares the situation to the HSE story in Ireland: “At the end of the day we need hospital beds. We need nurses and doctors. We need the ICU units. We need equipment and drugs. We’ve probably spent the most of any country, privately and publicly, on health, but yet we actually don’t have what we need. And this has emerged in Irish education as well, where the frontline in terms of Academics is actually really, really quite small.”
Walsh explains how funds for the front line declined inside the universities as well. “In the 1990s when I was in Trinity, when it was bottom-up money, […] the schools would keep 70% while 30% went up to administration. Now, it wasn’t really quite fair because to do systems and registration properly – and administrators do a great job – we probably weren’t giving them enough. The problem with the top-down money, the opposite happened inside University: suddenly the overhead crawled up and up over the years.”
Walsh hypothesises that “academic units probably explain less than 25% of the total turnover in the HEI sector. This is kind of crazy right?” COVID-19 highlighted the same weak frontline capacity that the health sector had coming into the current crisis.
Quangos just don’t take overheads but also dictate the nature of education, research and policy outreach. He says that academics, in his view, are likely to pursue research in areas of great public interest, such as in climate change or COVID-19, but academics are not the people deciding the orientation of Irish research. Quangos such as Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) or the Irish Research Council (IRC), who aren’t necessarily academics in themselves, “can take a particular way of looking at things. […] So, not only are the overheads a problem for us, I also think their direction on education, research and policy can be a problem for the academy and the public good.”
“While we are having a debate inside the university on this issues of funding, governance and direction of education and research, maybe turning on each other in a sense, […] the real problem is the nature of funding, that top-down money and the agents outside of universities are controlling its direction.”
“I honestly think that academics who have spent their whole life, you know, doing a PhD up to 30 years of age, who just spent their whole life researching on social and environmental issues and publishing in peer review journals are actually pretty honest people and are well able to run themselves […] I don’t see why the Department of Education and Skills can’t give money directly without oversight by government agencies. I don’t see why they can’t give it directly to the universities to be managed by university governance in a peer reviewed system.”
“I firmly believe that if Universities could expand academic bases in recessions and have complete academic freedom in the direction of education and research we would come up with solutions for balancing the books (and for the pandemic and for climate change while we are at it)”.
“The problem when you’re linked to government and her agencies in this manner, your funding moves pro-cyclical with government finances. And if government gets into a situation of deficits and it has to cut spending, then they have to cut funds to the quangos. But then the quangos have to cut our funds. So suddenly HEIs finances become pro-cyclical. And this is the problem. When the government is in recession, we’re in recession.”
Walsh goes back to his example of Columbia University, explaining that when the last recession hit, they hired more academics, promoted staff, expanded their programmes to meet the rising demand by students during the recession.
He contrasts this again with Ireland’s top-down system of funding, “I can guarantee you in a recession, this is the time when you make hay. You can make plenty of money and have plenty of bums on seats, even during COVID.” He continues by explaining how financial constraints set by the government will restrict third level institutions from being countercyclical, bringing things “back again to 2011” where universities will be “completely stagnant. […] If the government cannot fund the expansion of the academic base there is no ability to balance the books.”
Why So Much Oversight?
He explains that the career civil servants in the Department of Education and Skills, are losing their power and influence on Ministerial decision making. He believes that government advisors and appointments on boards of quangos have also been “undermining the power of the civil service”
Walsh explains that most of the HEI’s money comes down through the vertical structure of quangos. He says, “one suggestion is that we get rid of these quangos”, as the “front lines” of third level education are “under resourced” and running “very thin on the ground.”
As the legislators have the power to remove the quangos, Walsh says that every government after a big recession considers doing it: Bord Snip, Bord Snip Nua, and now we will likely see Bord Snip Nua Eile.” Walsh has little hope though, as he correctly points out that government ministers appoint people to the boards of the quangos on entering their positions. He invites a closer look at this process and how close the government is to these agencies, saying: “Let’s look at the names of these people and their relationship to the ministers.” Walsh laments that these agencies are “embedded in government” and they’re “not that easy to get rid of.”
Walsh says that when current UCD President Andrew Deeks arrived in 2014, Deeks saw a university with 800 academics and wanted to increase this to at least 2,000 to compete on a global level. Walsh says that with the Employment Control Framework in place, meaning no public funding for expanding the academic base of the university, “President Deeks felt he was forced to go up a commercial road and commercialise the assets of UCD to expand the academic base and all that goes with that.”
After the last recession, the “argument to get rid of the employment control framework was not made enough to change policy, “this was stupid.” Walsh still believes that staff and students at large aren’t able to get this point across and say “no” to the employment control of the publicly funded academic base and the commercialisation of the academic base. He criticises staff for not speaking up more readily on this topic, warning them to not feel so comfortable in their positions, as government cuts may yet greatly affect their pensions, assets and teaching positions. At the moment, Walsh says “the government is constraining us like hell due to its policy via its quangos.”
Walsh believes the best solution is telling the taxpayers: “You give the money directly to the universities. You should keep it in state ownership, and you should keep it governed in the traditional way. And then you should allow the universities [to] finance themselves in a way that’s guaranteeing the production of knowledge for the public good.”
Walsh says the current alternative has created a “financial gap” to be filled in the university. A university spokesperson recently told the College Tribune: “Since the economic crash in 2008, the core State grant to the University has fallen from €145m (2008/09) to a low of €62m (2016/2017). In the past couple of budgets this figure has increased slightly, mainly to take into account the restoration of some pay cuts, and this year it is €73m. This is still barely 50% of the core State grant provided twelve years ago.
“Consequently, the University has sought to generate alternative income and this has resulted in a reversal of the balance between Exchequer and non-Exchequer funding, which now stands at 35% to 65%.
“The other income streams include commercial activities, such as the conferences hosted in O’Reilly Hall. The expansion of non-EU student numbers has also contributed significantly to the income of the University.
“In 2008 non-EU fee income accounted for 20% of total fee income. By 2019 this had increased to 39% of total fee income and the number of non-EU students had risen to 5,825.”
Walsh sees the path of commercialisation for UCD as a reaction to this “financial gap” created by the government, and pursuing alternative income streams from international student accommodation, capital projects and commercial income, could have been prevented if academic staff in HEIs were funded properly. “So, now the government’s funding wasn’t there, and we replaced it with commercial funding, which is also pro-cyclical.”
“And the irony of it all, going back to my thesis, is that we had the capability to be countercyclical. We had the capability to be recession proof. So, this is complete mismanagement of the HEIs and the academy.”
Walsh summarises the attitude of the government as not too dissimilar to the light-touch regulation from the Central Bank on banks before the 2008 crash. “If universities can pull in money from other sources, which has nothing to do with the taxpayer, why is that our problem?”
The current pandemic and recession has put extreme pressure on universities financially, and the government has already indicated that they won’t be bailing out the universities. The pandemic has effectively removed international students as a crutch for UCD to derive additional income. “Like the banks, the Universities will need a bail out. We are now a problem for the government.”
When asked who is to blame for this mess, Walsh elaborates: “Well, it’s too easy to blame the management on campus. It’s too easy to blame the quangos, too easy to blame the government. We’re all to blame. We’re supposed to be educated and clever people. Let’s blame all current staff and students, alumni, all the managers, all the administrators, all the quangos, the Department of Education and Skills people and government people. We are all to blame in this because we’re all complicit. […] It was the stupidity, the absolute stupidity, of not allowing universities to expand during recessions and allowing the academic base to expand with public funds that got us here.”
What Happens If Things Don’t Change?
Walsh says the quangos have been “growing over time, and they’re not stopping. […] My instinct is that this status quo is not stable and that the best way to insulate ourselves is to actually be united and clear with our Ministers and the Department of Education and Skills. A good start would be to have a dedicated Minister and Department for HEIs that fund HEIs directly. Academic governance [in] the direction of Education, Research and Policy support is essential. COVID has proven that to the taxpayer.”
Walsh believes that there can be benefits to working with universities abroad and “getting in with the private sector” but “the governance has to be much, much better. […] You cannot have entities on campus that don’t have academic and student representation on them. That is just not going to work out well.”
How Can Things Change?
Walsh says, at the moment, staff and students within the universities are “fragmented”, “disorganised”, and “don’t have a single voice.” He creates a parallel with frontline medical workers and asks how much the State would pay them in the event of a mass walkout during COVID-19? University staff and students have that same power. He says they have to be “much better organised” and should “create a single voice” for the protection of the idea of the University.
“That whole pyramid that we’ve been talking about is made of sand,” Walsh says, and suggests if staff and students partner with unions and take action, “things can change very fast.” He says now is the time to act, explaining that the reason universities have gotten into this mess, is because during times of the recession in the 1980’s and 2010’s, staff and students “put up with bad government policies.”
Walsh says, “now is the time to fight for the future of Irish universities”. Why not push back against external agencies that “have nothing really to do with knowledge creation” and are “driving us to extinction”.