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REPORT OF SEMINAR: Higher Education and the Public Interest

Seminar hosted by BH Associates at the Royal Irish Academy on 14 December 2017 – a note on the discussions

Panel: Mr. Sean Fleming, T.D. Professor Andrew Deeks, Professor Simon Marginson, Professor Ellen Hazelkorn and Mr. Tom Boland (Chair)


The seminar is the first such seminar to be hosted by BH Associates, who have as one of their objectives to create opportunities for public debate on education matters.

The theme of the seminar is an increasingly topical, yet contentious, subject in many countries around the world. To appreciate its significance, one needs to reflect on the historical development of the university and its relationship with the State.

The earliest European universities owed their allegiance to the local political authority, usually held by the church, crown or state. A closer connection between the university and society was fashioned with the emergence of modern science during the Enlightenment which, during the 20th century, was further strengthened. The “social contract” emerged alongside the growing realisation that higher education and research provided the means for social and economic progress and personal development. This relationship was based upon carefully balanced public support, through funding and public policy, in exchange for academic and institutional autonomy.

Today, in many countries – universities and colleges are coming under increasing public scrutiny and criticism. There is growing public concerns about the relevance of qualifications, career readiness and arguments about cost vs price, and the pay of academics and institutional leadership. Changes in the electoral maps in the US, UK and France, to name just three recent elections, reflect not only a reshaping of the political landscape but also hint at higher education’s isolation.

In Ireland, as a result of the recent recession, concerns around costs, effectiveness, efficiency and value-for-money have been elevated to a national obsession, feeding a broader public, political and media discordance with what is perceived as the unwillingness of various organisations and elites in receipt of public funds or benefit, to be fully transparent with respect to the use of these funds and/or benefits. The universities and institutes of technology have been at the centre of these concerns with heated exchanges at the Public Accounts Committee and in the national media.

In response to what is perceived to be insufficient public accountability (around, for example, procurement, salaries, intellectual property), and attention to student outcomes, the Irish government (as elsewhere) is considering a review of quality and strengthening its regulatory role.

The seminar heard that there were two key, and separate, aspects to the functioning of higher education institutions (HEI) - academic freedom and institutional autonomy. The academic freedom of institutions enjoyed broad political and societal support.  In the case of institutional autonomy, the matter was not so clear-cut

HEIs have two key assets – their reputation and their staff.  To the political system, reputation has been seriously damaged by a consistent failure on the part of the institutions to publish audited accounts in a timely way.  The implications of this were that the HEIs appeared to be unwillingly to accept the standard public accountability requirements applying to all other publicly funded entities.  In order to secure compliance more powers were needed by the Department of Education and Skills and the Higher Education Authority.

This view was challenged on the basis that the delay in publishing accounts was largely outside the control of the HEIs and reflected issues of resources and co-ordination with other agents in the public accountability system. In addition, while the delays were acknowledged, the case was made that once published, the accounts did not disclose serious malpractice in the sector.  However, procurement was pointed to as one area where there was widespread malpractice, as well as concerns about intellectual property rights.

In matters of accountability, it was argued, universities were long established organisations that have adapted over the centuries to various forms of society, and government and autonomy has always been partial. Universities are very complex organisations and this presents a particular challenge to regulatory systems which might not fully appreciate or understand this complexity.  Procrastination and poor decision-making often resulted. However, it was pointed out that the risk inherent in such an argument, was that it re-enforced a sense that the universities considered themselves somehow separate and unique in the public accountability system – a position that would get scant sympathy from that system.

More generally, it was argued, higher education was in a dangerous place at present, caused by a combination of factors.  First the sector was composed of many self-interested corporate actors.  The quest for status in global rankings was clear evidence of this.  A second risk posed was the narrowing of academic activity to STEM, with a neglect of focus on cognitive function, as students and HEIs focus increasingly on individual economic interest.  Overall, higher education was now on the wrong side of the elite/populist divide in many countries.

To tackle these risks, it was proposed that HEIs needed to be proactive, not defensive, and they needed to focus on student learning and actual outcomes in terms of cognitive formation i.e. on learning not on jobs and careers.

The composition of governing boards was also seen as key to better accountability, with differing views expressed.  On the one hand, it was proposed that governing boards should be composed of credible people, all of whom would be external to the institution. A contrary view was that the current composition of governing bodies in the Irish universities, with wide internal stakeholder representation, ensured a wide representation of society. It was thus a means of reflecting the public interest and was an accountability mechanism in itself to the wider public. However, to counter that, there was little evidence that such wide representation actually led to greater public understanding of the institutions.

The issue of accountability and the public interest was further complicated by the fact that when it comes to being accountable to the public, a university is not faced with a homogeneous group but with many different “publics” with different and even competing interests.  Meeting all needs, as well as internal accountability demands, posed particular problems.

Performance agreements were seen as having a role to play in accountability systems, but they do not lend themselves very effectively to public scrutiny. A more effective approach would be to enhance the availability of data on institutional performance, especially data on social indicators. Overall, information-based accountability, rather than increased regulation, was seen as better in the long run as far as the contribution that higher education can make to the public interest.

A conclusion from the discussion was that there is scope for the HEIs to greatly improve the relationship with the political and regulatory systems by addressing what appear to be technical issues around accounting standards and procedures – to get these “off the table”.  A continuing dialogue, through either formal or informal processes, and outside the current dialogues, between the sector and the political and regulatory system could also be very beneficial in developing a greater level of mutual understanding and trust.

BH Associates