If I were a University President…

Of course the first thing to realise is that in practice a University President in Ireland has surprisingly little power to change anything.

Caught between the Department of Education, the HEA, Budget cuts, the Unions, Students, Parents and all the other vested interests a University President, rather than having the sweeping powers that their title might suggest, is more like a man (and here I should of course say “or woman” - but this is Ireland - that’s never going to happen) trapped inside a strait-jacket with only a small amount of wriggle room to temporarily ease the pressure points.

But the problem is becoming urgent. Higher education is just too expensive, and maintaining the current model is not sustainable.  If we carry on are we are, fees must rise to UK levels, with the inevitable consequence that university education will again become the preserve of the rich, as the middle classes buckle under the strain of austerity. And while we might object to this on high-minded equalitarian grounds, the fact is that this country sells itself as a country with a highly educated population with the skills necessary for the next century. So we need to have 50% or more of the population with a University degree or equivalent to keep Ireland Inc afloat. But we simply can’t afford it!

Unfortunately the current University model is for now the only show in town. It is clearly very seductive. The Institutes of Technology for example see no future for themselves other than to become fully fledged (and almost immediately bankrupt) “Technological” Universities. It will be interesting to see how quickly they manage to shed that unwanted qualifier “Technological”.

The reality is that we need a lower cost model for Higher Education. This is blindingly obvious (to me), but rather surprisingly the penny does not seem to have dropped yet. Most commentators on education, as beneficiaries and/or products of the current system, perhaps cannot be expected to question it. In fact not only can we not afford Universities, we probably can’t afford University Presidents either, and the administrative baggage that goes with such a hierarchy.

Of course the objection to all this is that we are not an island (well actually…). We must keep up with the Jones’s next door. We must at least maintain our position in the international rankings. We must continue to look and feel like a regular University, a “real” University. I guess it’s the same instinct that keeps a lemming running alongside its peers.

Historical note: Actually I do remember a time when we in DCU managed to thrive as a “National Institute for Higher Education”, when as a country we had the courage to experiment with a new model outside of the norm.

Anyway to answer my own question, if I were a University President with plenipotentiary powers I would bulldoze the library (now only relevant for eyeing up potential sexual partners), sign up with a good MOOC provider, sack all vice-Presidents, Deans, Heads of School, reduce the Human Resources department to one (really good) individual, close down or sell off all sports facilities, organise academic Schools as collectives which appoint their own leaders, use the savings to reduce fees to an absolute minimum (and put the other Universities out of business), and finally sack myself.

And specifically if I were President of DCU I would bulldoze the Helix (an extreme example of mission drift), and cut down that massive 50 foot high Leylandii hedge that separates the DCU campus from St. Aidan’s school next door and sends out entirely the wrong message to the local community. (Actually that last would be quite easy to do myself – I see Aldi do a nice petrol chainsaw for less than 100 Euro..)