University funding and institutional autonomy was discussed on at a European level at a Council Meeting of the European Universities Association (EUA), which was attended by UCD President Andrew Deeks.

What is the EUA?

The EUA consists of members over 850 members from 47 counties. It aims to ‘support, for the benefit of all, the continued development of the culture, society, technology and economy of Europe’, by giving members ‘unique opportunities to influence and shape future European policy and initiatives affecting higher education and research.’

The EUA envisages European universities becoming ‘a system of academic institutions with highly diversified profiles, providing a wide spectrum of graduate qualifications and facilitating the mobility of staff and students.’ This is only possible through ‘promoting autonomous institutions, able to define their own strategy and build partnerships in their own best interests.’ Its membership costs are based on a country’s national GNP per capita and size of a university, which puts UCD’s annual membership fee at just under €5,000.

It is made up of three bodies, a Board, Council, and General Assembly. The EUA’s Secretariat operates out of Brussels and Geneva. The Board is made up of eight members and a President. One of the Board Members is Professor Michael Murphy, who served as President of University College Cork (UCC) from 2007 to 2017. He has also been the Vice-Chancellor of the National University of Ireland, Chair of the Health Research Board of Ireland, and Chair of the Irish Universities Association. The terms of the President and five Board Members are set to expire in 2019. Academics from Irish institutions would be ineligible for the roles as there can only be one board member per country, with Murphy’s term running from 2017 to 2021.

The Council consists of the President, Board Members, and either chairpersons or nominated representatives on behalf of the universities in each country. Deeks is the representative of the Irish Universities Association, the national body which represents and advocates on behalf of Ireland’s seven universities. The EUA’s General Assembly meets at least once a year, and is attended by all full and associate members.

The EUA Council’s Paper

Deeks attended the EUA Council’s meeting on Friday, 26th January. He noted that ‘most of the meeting was concerning routine matters and reports of EUA activities’ but highlighted the position paper that was endorsed by the Council. It followed ‘significant revision of an earlier draft in response to feedback from [Deeks] and others.’ This paper is titled ‘Learning and Teaching in Europe’s Universities’ and sets out 6 key points. The final point is ‘Institutional autonomy and sustainable funding are essential for the development of L&T activities.’ Deeks stated ‘the final key message on autonomy and funding is one that I continue to deliver at every opportunity.’

The Council noted that ‘the diversity of institutional profiles and educational programmes is one of the key characteristics and strengths of European higher education. Each university is expected to have a well-defined profile and clear objectives for its study programmes.’ In order to facilitate these goals, national legal frameworks should ‘facilitate the implementation of context-sensitive L&T and provide sufficient autonomy for institutions to develop programmes based on cutting-edge disciplinary and professional knowledge in response to the needs of society, while also allowing for experimentation and innovation.’

The Council identified both the protection of institutional autonomy and adequate provision of public funding as key priorities in enabling the development and implementation of high quality teaching and learning. It observed that funding cuts tend to target this area as opposed to research.

National Developments

The EUA’s position follows recent developments at a national level. The Irish government unveiled plans last month to link public funding for the third-level sector to national objectives. The news raised concern that this would prevent universities from best using the money as they see fit.

Deeks wrote an opinion piece in the Irish Times in January calling for the preservation and protection of university autonomy. He told staff that the release of the government’s ‘Review of the Allocation Model for Funding Higher Education Institutions’ and the ‘widespread reporting of the suggestion that financial penalties for ‘breaches of governance’ will be introduced meant that the time was right to present a clear and informed view on these matters to the wider public.’

He recently told staff that he ‘received positive feedback from a number of quarters’ due to the piece, which is derived from his presentation at the seminar on Higher Education and the Public Interest in December. At that seminar, Deeks recalled to staff that he explained how universities have proven to be ‘robust and adaptable organisations able to function under many different forms of government’, with one reason being the evolution of ‘effective internal systems of governance and management in which the status quo is continually challenged.’

Deeks also mentioned that he addressed the consequences of the transfer of power from universities to other institutions and bodies, with HR matters being a key area. When these occur within university ‘decision-making process and accountability lines’, the decision maker is ‘personally impacted by the consequences (positive and negative), and must take responsibility both up and down the organisation.’ In contrast, decision makers outside of a university have ‘no accountability… and no personal stake in the decision.’ This is resulting in ‘procrastination, onward referral of decisions, and when decisions are finally made they are almost inevitably conservative’, while outside decisions cannot be challenged the same way internal ones can, hence reducing accountability.

The EUA will host its Annual Conference Zurich in April. Its 2016 Conference was held in Galway and featured a keynote speech from Irish President Michael D. Higgins.

Cian Carton – Editor

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