Phoney War


The biggest struggle is academia at the moment is apparently between the good guys (honest hard-working academic seekers-of-the-truth) and the bad guys (philistine managers).

DCU itself has seen the former mobilise under the banner of “Defenders of the University”.

What of course we are actually seeing is the mobilisation of vested interests in response to the urgent need for change. It’s about maintaining the status quo. Every threatened group does it. It is a typical Irish thing. As any observer of Irish soccer would admit, we like to do a lot of defending.

Brief background: The Modern University emerged from the Middle Ages as a bastion of knowledge, accessible only to a privileged few. It was an incredible success, and the model remained largely unchanged right up until the 1950s. The children of professionals were trained to take over the rewards of privilege from their parents. The riff-raff (except some really clever ones) were kept out. However genuine advances in all spheres of knowledge surged from the Universities of the world, and continue to do. For an academic, life was ideal. Many would go straight from being students to being academics right through to retirement, without ever stepping into the “real world”. Theirs was a life in noble unhurried pursuit of scientific or artistic curiosity. Typically the University was run by the academics supported by a very small, powerless, cohort of administrative staff. Sporadically valued, but very much taken for granted.

Then the first big upheaval in the 1950s – capitalism needed more graduates, the universities were forced to open up to the masses. In Ireland today apparently more than 50% of the working population have University degrees. Indeed as a country its one of our big selling points. You would have thought that this sudden shock would have been sufficient to blow away the traditional structures, but they remained remarkably resilient. They just scaled up. However I remember once reading why we can never have the gigantic scary spiders of many a science fiction novel – if you just scale up every detail you get a spider which would collapse under its own weight. And so it was with the modern University. Following the (very expensive) American model it became much more than a place of learning. Sports and leisure facilities were included. Universities often became literally huge gated communities of students and academics who needed to be housed, educated, exercised, fed and amused. However such elaboration obviously required more managing. And hence the relentless growth of university management. And like many a small, oppressed, taken-for-granted group before them - they then started to flex their muscles.

And before the academics knew it the managers were running the place, measuring academic performance, even telling academics what to be academically curious about! Outrageous! Academic “defenders” yearn for a return to the golden age.

But wait - where did this new managerial class come from? In fact many of them were actually once academics themselves! Bored with teaching, and with their research going nowhere, many suddenly decided that they were actually God’s Gift to academic administration. It was also a path to promotion that otherwise might have remained out of reach. They still often have academic sounding job-titles, and many would insist that were still really academics, reluctantly doing managerial work as a service to ungrateful colleagues. Yeah, right.

This was despite having absolutely no qualifications in management, third level or otherwise. (Which is really ironic if you think about it. The Universities trade on the need for the population to have university degrees in order to be qualified to do anything useful. And yet they allow themselves to be run by untrained managers).

And let us also cast a cold eye on the modern academic. Just because there are many more Universities does not mean that they are many more really clever people in the world that genuinely deserve the elevated status and pay of a University Professor. In many cases it is not at all clear why a research-ineffective university lecturer deserves a much higher salary than a second level teacher. BTW second level teachers do by and large have a teaching qualification!

An educational establishment run by untrained managers, and staffed by untrained teachers. Hmmm.

Anyway we are now at the stage where a second big upheaval is well under way. The cost of higher education in the current model is simply unsustainable. Government’s can no longer afford to subsidize them. Children of struggling parents simply cannot afford the fees required to keep the existing show on the road.  Academics and University managers are turning on one another. It’s getting ugly.

However the reality is that this is a phoney war, as it is clearly in the short term interest of both sides to maintain the unsustainable status quo.

So stop the unseemly squabbling and start addressing the real problems. Each side in this “war” needs to sort out their own house before finger-pointing at the other.

Focus solely on keeping third-level education affordable and accessible to all. That is really the only war worth fighting.