The Tumultuous State of Irish Academia

20 May

The left wing of the right wing wrings its hands

These are scary times.” Thus blogged Prof. Ferdinand von Prondzynski just over a year ago during his tenure as President of DCU. And while the good professor has since moved on to pastures hopefully greener (as Vice-Chancellor of Robert Gordon University in Scotland), the tumultuous state into which Irish third level education was then descending has, if anything, become ever more tumultuous.

Aside from the continuing furore over academic standards which had originally gotten FvP into a flap, the sector has since had to deal with a series of rolling crises, none of which have found any resolution. In this post we document these eruptions, the internal power struggles gripping the sector and the corporate executive culture that has left the upper echelons bare-arsed in a chill political wind.

Putting this together with the scandals that have rocked the sector and the unrelenting pillorying by the likes of Independent News and Media, the medium term effects for the country’s education system will be dire. The seamless policy transition from FF/Green to FG/Labour and the continued spineless response of the representatives  of the academic staff will ensure:

  • dramatically increased costs for students
  • sharply declining educational standards
  • no new courses offered for years to come
  • annihilation of third level lecturing as a viable career choice
  • abolition of tenure
  • significant erosion of academic freedom

The common denominator in these developments has been a corporate takeover of third level education. This has had a corrosive effect: laying waste to educational standards, feeding excesses in the upper echelons, misdirecting funding, lowering the standing of education in society and undermining the educational ethos within the institutions. We will attempt to draw out these aspects of what is an on-going fiasco in an important strand in Irish society.

Corporate Culture Condemned

On May 5th of 2009, an opinion piece in the Irish Times entitled “Grey philistines taking over our universities” by Prof. Tom Garvin sent shock waves through education circles. Not only was this an incendiary piece attacking the “medics masquerading as businessmen and practitioners of non-subjects such as ‘management’ and ‘teaching and learning’” who had gained control of Irish universities, but it was penned by a highly regarded political scientist who knew exactly what he was talking about.

And who could argue with him? The list of the 100 best-paid in Irish education makes for sober reading. Vice presidents pulling down a tidy quarter of a million euro plus expenses, bureaucrats packing the top levels of pay, it is hard to spot a true academic in the list. Of course, the salaries have gone down from previous years and now, for example, UCD’s Vice-President for Research Des Fitzgerald has to make do with €263,602, down from €409,000 in 2009. Poor lamb.

And then there’s the lifestyle that has to be maintained by these self-styled CEO’s. NUI Galway racked up €108,000 of tax-payers money on private jets. While this, along with a further €77,000 of “inappropriate expenses”, was billed to Science Foundation Ireland for research, when it came out, SFI were having none of it and demanded the money back. The presence of current NUIG President Jim Browne and then-President Iognaid O’Muircheartaigh on one of the flights only added to the unsavoriness of the whole affair.

Because we're worth it

Not to be outdone, UCD’s President Hugh Brady’s taste for five-star accommodation, lavish dinners in exclusive restaurants, golf at the K Club and business class flights around the world set the tax-payer back in excess of €100,000. Meantime Don Barry, UL’s President, felt it necessary to use €1.1 million of university money to build an extravagant residence for himself, while UCC President Michael Murphy’s numerous trips abroad netted him €75,000 in tax-free expenses.

To cap it all off, the Irish Universities Association, a talking shop for the seven Presidents which has no statutory authority, had its budget increased from €3 million to €5 million. What precisely the IUA actually does with all of this money is a mystery and will remain so, since, as a private organisation (albeit funded by the taxpayer), it is exempt from Freedom of Information requests that might cast some light on its workings.

Worth every million

The Institutes of Technology Get in on the Act

Meanwhile, the IoT’s Presidents suffer from similar delusions of adequacy. At Waterford IT, the president “Professor” (despite there being no such grade within the IoT’s) Kieran Byrne found himself in hot water when, on foot of a local TUI branch Freedom of Information request, it transpired he had seen fit to spend €157,050 on his office and boardroom in a brand new building.

Subsequent poking around led to the revelations of an orgy of €6.7 million spending, including €141,517 on taxis. His response, that he had actually saved the college money since mileage rates would have been even more expensive, only generated further outrage.

The WIT-less "Professor"

The timing couldn’t have been worse for the self-styled professor, as his reappointment was just about to be ratified by the institute’s governing body – a formality under normal circumstances. With pressure mounting from all sides, the board got cold feet and decided to look elsewhere for a new president. Current indications are that the ever-bullish Byrne may seek redress in the courts and so this sordid story may be far from over.

Caviar for them, crumbs for us

With all of this extravagance, one would be forgiven  for thinking that the third level sector is weathering the state’s current financial difficulties. Nothing could be further from the truth. With combined accumulated debts of €30 million, Irish Universities are floundering. The institutes of technology are in a similar situation. What’s more, as Irish universities have plunged in recent world rankings and no IT has managed to attain the vaunted university status, all excuses for this profligate CEO behaviour have evaporated.

Faced with sharply contracting finances in the face of rapidly expanding demand, the various presidents have found themselves incapable of doing anything other than drag the sector further into disrepute. Promoted through a system that favours the insider, times have now changed and the education CEO’s have had to watch powerless as a succession of public revelations have caught them off-side time and time again.

UCD President Hugh Brady’s mauling at the Public Accounts Committee is one of the most striking examples of how times have changed. Here we have the doyen of the education CEOs, the “Michael O’Leary of Irish education”, being savaged in public by his political overlords. Tepid interventions by some of the other presidents present did nothing to disperse the fire.

Ned Costello: Get this guy out of here before he shoots us all in the foot

Pressed to say how many hours university lecturers actually teach, the best that IUA honcho Ned Costello could muster was to attack the IoT’s, claiming that the 18 hours lecturing per week required there– three times that in the universities – has become a floor to which “people work down”. Such nonsense only served to mire proceedings in deeper doo-doo.

Also in the firing line was UL’s Don Barry, called upon to explain how his university could be paying no less than three presidents salaries at the same time. Initially, trying to cover up who the beneficiaries of such largesse were by referring to them as persons A, B and C, Barry was forced under fire to admit “I am C”. His muttered aside about returning to Limerick “if I survive this meeting” speaks volumes about the unusual pressure the presidents were being put under.

In all of this, the presidents’ nemesis has emerged in the form of the Higher Education Authority’s Tom Boland. A career bureaucrat, he is famous in the sector for insisting that during meetings he always has a line of sight with a clock as he counts down the minutes until he can get out the door. His spat with Brady centred on “illegal” payments to senior staff, to the tune of €1.6 million, made without HEA approval. As Brady disputed the HEA’s contention that it never sanctioned these payments, Boland retorted “What part of ‘no’, does UCD not understand?” eliciting gasps from those present at the PAC.

The Higher Eejits Authority

Over the last decade the HEA has accumulated power on a grand scale, taking over numerous functions formerly carried out by the Department of Education. Boland’s two big sticks are the Employment Control Framework and the full-cost workload model being applied to third level. The former has halted all hiring in the public service in general, while the latter is the typical managerial hocus-pocus trying to compare education to pressing number plates.

Would you buy a phone from this man?

Just to remove any doubt that the government has a clue about higher education, the appointment of John Hennessy, the former chairman of Ericsson (Ireland), as chair of the HEA was a perfect choice. Here is someone with little or no understanding of higher education, steeped in the corporate mindset, launched into the driving seat of government control on the largely autonomous system that is third level education.

Of course, rather than take issue with the excesses of the university CEO’s and their corporate managerialism, with which he no doubt identifies, Hennessy took no time to launch a blistering attack on the humanities, chastising academics who, as he saw it, “hold their nose” at the idea of working with industry. If he had a whit of sense he might have asked himself what it is that Ireland has a huge international reputation for. The answer is not the world-class scientists we produce, of which there are precious few, but rather  our writers, poets and artists, whether they hold their noses or not.

But no, continuing with his tirade a short while later, we had the unedifying spectacle of the chair of the HEA attacking the very notion of tenure. Some crumbs of comfort were afforded the humanities when he went on to say that students should experience arts and humanities subjects in their first year of college. After that, presumably, they can focus on the important things in life, such as turning a buck for multinational telecoms companies.

Strategies for Failure

The Employment Control Framework is the classic strategy of failure for those in charge who have no idea what they oversee. Rather than identify and prioritize what it is that is being done best, by halting all hiring and using retirement as a way to reduce numbers, the ECF is an entirely random, and hence chaotic, depletion of human resources.

The results are predictable. The loss of key personnel goes unaddressed and so the quality of service declines. Moreover, faced with acute shortages, the institutions have returned to huge dependence on part-time labour to meet legal obligations, further eroding control on quality or resource allocation.

This situation is exacerbated by part-time legislation which means that after a fourth year an employee is entitled to a contract of indefinite duration. Rather than give tenure by this back door method, institutions have adopted a policy of churning part-time employees, a highly dubious strategy that will land them in the labour court.

Another strategy to get around the ECF has been to introduce fixed term contracts for lecturers – 9 month, 1 year, 2 year, 7 year – you name it. Not only is this of dubious legality, it is raising hackles across the sector as it is undermining the very notion of tenure. Only time will tell what the ultimate results are from these disastrous policies, but it is clear that quality of education is not even getting a look in.

Standards? What Standards?

And quality of education, or more precisely, its decline, is a very real concern. As has now been well-documented, even before the financial crisis, the Irish education system at both second and third level has seen a dramatic lowering of standards.

During 1994-2010, a time of massive expansion, institutions completely failed to maintain academic standards. The result has been weaker and weaker students entering the system and leaving with higher and higher awards. For example, during this period the Irish educational system saw a marked increase in the number of higher awards at both second and third level

  • 2nd Level: the ten most popular subjects, at higher level the rate of A grades increased by an average of 144% and B grades by 52%
  •  IoTs: for Honours Degrees there was a 52% increase in the rate of first class award
  • Universities: the proportion of first class degrees increased by over 75%

These dramatic changes have been caused by a multiplicity of factors. Institutions, led by their corporate CEO’s, have prioritized growth over standards, regulatory bodies have been completely captured by the bodies they were supposed to regulate and lecturers have been put under intolerable pressure to push students through the system regardless of standards.

A large part of this has been driven under the “the student is the customer” rubric, where the corporate consumer model is being imposed on the educational sector. The rejoinder that “the customer is always right” spells the death of any chance of maintaining academic standards.

Once again, Tom Garvin’s Irish Times piece is extremely prescient: non-subjects such as “teaching and learning” have indeed been embraced by the CEO’s as the way forward. This has led to the evisceration of technical content from many courses, a nod-them-through culture around assessments and, ultimately, the production of thousands of worthless qualifications.

It is ironic, then, that it was complaints about the poor quality of graduates from Irish corporations that triggered the spasm of bad press in March 2009 that so upset Baron Prondzynski. After all, was it not FvP himself who poo-pooed the very notion of declining standards a year earlier, claiming “If there were serious drops in standards at university level, we would be hearing from employers about the declining standards of graduates.” That chicken certainly came home to roost with a vengeance.

The financial crisis has exacerbated this already deplorable situation. Harried lecturers are being forced to take on more and more teaching, reducing their ability to maintain any kind of standards. It has also brought almost all course development to a halt. The third level sector now faces a decade of curricular stagnation as resources are diverted towards a 15% increase in student numbers coupled to a 6% decrease in staffing.

Increased dependence on non-permanent workers and attacks on tenure are also undermining the professionalism required to stand up to institutional pressures to inflate grades. In addition, the HEA has just introduced plans to fine institutions for every student that drops out, putting yet more pressure on them to drag under-performing students through the system.

To Cheat or not to Cheat?

To make matters even worse, today’s students have a range of options to force colleges to increase their award levels. First up are the student evaluations being introduced under the corporate modernisation agenda – proven internationally to inflate grades. Then there are the student appeals system and complaints procedure, all of which serve to force lecturers to be more lenient on their “customers”. The IT Tralee, Cork IT and GMIT scandals discussed below are cases where these mechanisms were successfully exploited.

Further along the scale of dubiousness are the for-profit online companies that write students assignments for them. These are now flooding the Irish market, offering to write assignments, projects, even theses, for students willing to cough up the money. Take, a Wicklow-based company set up by graduates from that paragon of virtue, the Smurfit School of  Business. They offer assignments tailored to dozens of named courses in Irish institutions, including UCD, TCD, NUI Maynooth and a number of IoT’s, and judging by their facebook page, business is booming.

Or how about the free online document corrupter – a student uploads an unfinished word document of some assignment they have yet to turn in, and this tool modifies it so that it cannot be opened. The student then sends the corrupted file to the lecturer in order to buy themselves some extra time. Ingenious!

Government Policy on the Ropes

What of government policy in all of this mess? To describe it as chaotic would be charitable. Over successive governments, policy has been directed almost entirely by political expediency. Minister of Education and Science, Mary Coughlan, infamous for confusing Einstein’s theory of relativity with Darwin’s theory of evolution at a smart economy launch, is a case in point.

Should have read "The Smart Economy for Dummies"

“Demoted” from Tanaiste to Minister of Education and Science, Coughlan never got a grip on what it was she was supposed to be doing. She set about looking after her own political patch in a frantic effort to save her seat in Donegal. In the face of disastrous national financial circumstances she managed to lavish €8 million on a dubious land deal for her constituency institution, Letterkenny IT. The fact that former Fianna Fail Councillor Terry McEniff and former town council clerk Peter Coyle owned some of the land only added to the sleaze factor.

And then, while the Vocational Education Committees were being amalgamated across the country in a bid to slash costs, what was the only one not amalgamated? Donegal VEC. Or when the Institutes of Technology were being forced to announce mergers, which was the only one that stayed outside the fold? Letterkenny IT. Instead, they would be developing “links” to MaGee Campus of the University of Ulster in Derry. Not only would this exempt the institute from merger-mania, but they could soak up any cross-border funding on offer.

Ultimately all of this did her no good as she was swept out of the Dail at the last election. However, at a time of deep crisis in education, never has government policy been so driven by the peccadilloes of a failed politician. Little wonder then that Coughlan was given a less-than-rapturous reception at the TUI conference in Ennis last year. If justice had been done, “jostling” would have been the least of her worries.

It takes three to quango

Bad and all as Coughlan was, Government policy has been equally bad no matter who it is in charge. Take for example the case of the Higher Education and Training Awards Council. Tasked with overseeing standards in the IoT’s and private colleges, it has a miserable track record, producing voluminous documents on the subject while being totally incapable to even police, let alone enforce, its guidelines.

HETAC has acted like a fire-fighter who turns up hours after the building has burnt down. Whether it’s the scandal at Cork IT where 200 students with marks as low as 9% had their results set aside, or  the scandal of the failing students at IT Tralee who were allowed to continue regardless, or the scandal of the plagiarizing students in Galway-Mayo IT who were allowed to graduate, HETAC  has been relegated to sifting through the charred remains. Given its composition of the usual triumvirate of union, business and bureaucratic hacks, perhaps this is not surprising.

And yet, government policy towards HETAC has been confused, to say the least. It has been abolished no less than three times in as many years. First, it was announced by Brian Lenihan in October 2008 that it was to be abolished and replaced. Nothing happened until March 2010 when the grade inflation furore led Minister for Education Batt O’Keefe to announce, once again, that it was to be abolished. Finally, we have the FG/Labour Programme for Government announcing for a third time that it is to be abolished. To date, nothing has happened, and HETAC staggers along in a zombie-like state of semi-existence.

HETAC: Now you see us, now you see us, now you see us

Or take the National University of Ireland. This overarching structure for five of the universities has been in existence since the foundation of the state. In a shock announcement in January 2010 , Minister of Education Batt O’Keefe declared that the NUI was to be abolished. What possible savings this could generate, or what NUI would be replaced by, was anyone’s guess. But lo-and-behold, within 15 months, it was announced that the NUI was not to be abolished after all.

Even when it comes to research, the underpinning of the much-touted “smart economy”, government policy has been slapdash. The principal agency for science research funding, SFI, has been left without a Director General for almost a year. Moreover, the governments’ move to impose paycuts on European funded Marie-Curie Fellowship holders has jeopardized €10 million of EU funding.

Merger-Mania Sweeps the Institutes of Technology

And then there is the unseemly scramble to merge the 13 IoT’s in some shape or form. Conventional wisdom is that there are just too many of them spread around the country – wisdom that was echoed in the Hunt Report which was supposed to set out a national strategic for higher education. What a merger might actually mean, or what savings would be generated is anyone’s guess. But merge they must.

Back in 2008, Dundalk IT jumped the gun and tried to sneak under DCU’s wing, but DCU got cold feet and nothing came of it. At the time, DCU had to resist fierce pressure from Minister Dermot Ahern (in whose constituency Dk IT resides) who was trying to stick one in the eye of cabinet colleague Martin Cullen who was agitating for Waterford IT to be made a university.

To be fair to FvP, the DCU President developed a considerable track record of resisting pressure from political hacks trying to get into the education racket. At the same time as the Dundalk overtures, he was also resisting fierce pressure to accredit the Gaiety School of Acting, whose Director, Patrick Sutton, was Bertie Ahern’s speech coach and “mate”.

But now, things are different. With the geographic spread (from Letterkenny to Cork to Dundalk), outside of Dublin it’s anybody’s guess as to who should be merging with who. This has thrown the sector into turmoil as allegiances are being formed and sundered at a rate of knots. The magic number of full-time students is 10,000, above which the “merged” institutions are promised to be redesignated as Technological Universities.

Waterford IT, still smarting that it is not a university already, is in a bit of a bind.   Just under the 10,000 threshold, it needs a small institute to merge with. Geographically, Carlow IT is closest, but there is so much bad blood between the managements at these institutions that this is a non-runner. Next closest is Cork IT, but since this is of comparable size, battles over resources in a future merged institution would be pretty ugly.

Enter IT Tralee into the picture. While merging with Cork IT might make sense, somehow the triumvirate of Tralee, Waterford and Cork has emerged as the merger of choice of the IT presidents. What this means for students, staff or courses at these institutes is anyone’s guess.

Limerick IT, an obvious choice to merge with Tralee given the long-developed links through the government-funded Shannon Consortium, was therefore left hanging out to dry. Not to worry, sure didn’t LIT’s Registrar, Ruaidhrí Neavyn, move on to be president of Carlow IT! Problem solved: we have the Trans-Ireland Higher Education Alliance of Limerick IT/Tipperary Institute/Carlow IT, a franken-merger if ever there were one!

But then, in the middle of all of the jostling, the IT Tralee President Michael Carmody announced that he was jumping ship – to take up the presidency of rival Galway-Mayo IT! This sudden move was precipitated by the unexpected retirement of Marion Coy – president of GMIT and a permanent fixture of education quangos for the last decade, including the one that drew up the Hunt Report. The move caused consternation in Tralee, with concerns expressed over both the timing and implications.

Meanwhile, the much touted move of DIT, costing €1.5 billion, to Grangegorman appears to have been long-fingered, complicated by the proposed merger with Dun Laoghaire IADT, Tallaght IT and Blanchardstown IT. While the move is still set to go ahead, doubts remain.

Looking at the IoT presidents populating the ranks of the top 100 salaries in education, one must ask the question: are they really being paid upwards of €150,000 to run around like headless chickens?

Sold Out High and Low

Amidst all of this turmoil, what of the staff representatives organisations? In the universities this is the Irish Federation of University Teachers and SIPTU, while in the IoT’s it is the Teachers’ Union of Ireland. Here the story is not much different from  the rest of the public sector: weak leadership talking tough but capitulating time after time, officials deeply compromised by years of “partnership” and rear guard actions against militant activists attempting to rally members opposed to pension cuts, pay-cuts and savage attacks on terms and conditions of employment.

Any other government threats you'd like to pass on to your members, Peter?

In the TUI, the general secretary, Peter McMenamin, having surrounded himself on the national executive with sycophants and cowards, is staggering to retirement at the end of this year. Years of experience has taught him well how to manipulate his divided union (a majority of whom are second level teachers) to follow government policy.

Having rejected the Croke Park deal in May 2010, it took just one year for McMenamin and Co. to swing the TUI around by a combination of bureaucratic maneuvers, divide and conquer tactics and veiled (and not so veiled) threats.

The low point of these shenanigans was a Morning Ireland interview in which the General Secretary virtually became a government spokesman, threatening 300 redundancies of apprenticeship lecturers should the union not give in. This followed immediately upon a Special Delegate Conference at which McMenamin and President-cum-capitulator-in-chief Bernie Ruane were mauled for their spinelessness.

With the union deeply divided between second level (where little is set to change) and third level (where huge changes are being demanded) the threats and maneuvering of union officials delivered and the turn around was completed. Mind you it must be cold comfort to the likes of McMenamin and Ruane as their pillorying in the right-wing press over their trips abroad and exorbidant salaries has continued unabated. Some people are just so ungrateful.

Ironically, this has left IFUT and SIPTU’s education branch, hardly paragons of militancy, as the sole unions outside of the Croke Park fold. In IFUT the general secretary Mike Jennings has been taking a leaf out of McMenamin’s book. Having rejected the deal by a 2-to-1 majority a year ago, the union is once again to ballot on some new “clarifications” to the deal. Despite having recommended rejection of Croke Park first time round, the union’s executive is now back on message and recommending acceptance. What a difference a year makes.

New Grassroots Organising Emerges

The seismic shifts in third level education in the last few years has also seen an emergence of new voices within the sector. What with the swingeing paycuts, ham-fisted government policy, scandalous behaviour of the various presidents and a traitorous leadership in control of the unions, ordinary lecturers have been forming new grassroots alliances in an attempt to save the sector from complete disarray.

A network of academics opposed to attacks on tenure and academic freedom, including many of the nations leading intellectuals, has been formed and is becoming a force to be reckoned with within the sector. Spearheaded by former DIT lecturer Paddy Healy, the group has had high profile interactions with the university authorities during the “clarifications” period over the last year. While it remains to be seen how this will effect the ultimate outcome of this period of turmoil, the amount of information being circulated, as well as the level of engagement, has increased dramatically.

Within the IoT sector, the TUI remains deeply divided by union policy towards the government. Union activists are smarting at the shameful manner in which the union officials and executive have led the general membership into the cul-de-sac of the Croke Park. As the economic situation continues to deteriorate and pressure mounts for further pay cuts on public servants, we can expect a resurgence of militancy within the TUI which, coupled with other public sector unions, could finally see the likes of Begg and O’Connor at ICTU given the boot.

Whether these forces can gather in time to stop Irish education from falling off a cliff, remains to be seen.


One Response to “The Tumultuous State of Irish Academia”


  1. Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » The Tumultuous State of Irish Academia - May 23, 2011

    […] “‘These are scary times.’ Thus blogged Prof. Ferdinand von Prondzynski just over a year ago during his tenure as President of DCU. And while the good professor has since moved on to pastures hopefully greener (as Vice-Chancellor of Robert Gordon University in Scotland), the tumultuous state into which Irish third level education was then descending has, if anything, become ever more tumultuous …” (more) […]

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