“Defend the Irish University” reviews Grant Thornton’s ‘Review of the financial health of the Irish higher education sector’

When reviewing any publication we tend to ask ourselves about the author fairly early on: who are they? why have they written this book or produced this film? We need to know that, as who is speaking to us is relevant to the way we understand the message.  Grant Thornton is an assurance, tax and advisory firm with a declared Irish revenue of US $ 63million and a global revenue of US 3.8billion.  It claims to be “the fastest growing firm in Ireland” and lists ‘third level education’ amongst its  ‘business consulting services’.  It would be fair to say thus offers a business perspective.

Defend the Irish University, in contrast, represents the interests of those who teach, research and work in higher education.  Our Charter ( defendtheuniversity.ie ) has gathered over 1000 signatories and we are now working closely with the Union of Students in Ireland in pursuit of a higher education system which is recognised as a public good and which cannot and should not be subjected to narrow market and private profit interests.

The Grant Thornton report on the state of higher education in Ireland paints a sorry picture, and one which higher education staff in the front line are all too well aware of.  Between 2007 and 2011 students numbers across the sector rose by 26 per cent while the state grant felt by 25 per cent.  We might also add that staff income dropped by over 20 percent over the same period and numbers were reduced through the Employment Control Framework.  Much is made in the Grant Thornton report of the increase in pension liabilities at the universities but this is due entirely to changes in actuarial assumptions.  Looking to the future, student numbers are forecast to grow by more than 25 percent by 2030.  In terms of its contribution, the state grant has declined from 40 percent of the total in 2007 to 25% in 2011.  The sector has reached an inflection point argues the report, or what the rest of us would call a crisis.  We can certainly agree with that diagnosis, based largely on HEA, figures but the remedies proposed by this company are based on no facts whatsoever and are just a naked attempt to justify a private company promoting the milking of higher education.

What Grant Thornton propose as a remedy for higher education in Ireland is nothing if not consistent even if it is a completely evidence-free proposal.  Their solution lies in deepening and accelerating the influence of market forces on higher education.  The first set of recommendations centre around how more money could be made out of students and ex-students.  There are, we are told, “revenue boosting opportunities” in regards to international student income, alumni fundraising and “the commercialization of state sponsored R+D” (p 43).

The second set of recommendations centre around ‘sweating the assets’ in terms of those who work in higher education: we should ‘focus on increasing revenue” from academic programmes: extending the academic year, teaching in “a more efficient manner” through ICT, encourage academic programmes “generating the strongest financial performance” while taking every opportunity to “rationalise” “the costly ones or those that are in deficit “. (p 43)

The third strand of this market-oriented solution involves a decisive shift towards outsourcing which, it is clamed (with no evidence), will produce a 20-30% cost reduction and, something which is clearly most unlikely, an increase in “reliability and stability” (p 50).  The agents (and   beneficiaries) of this bold new strategy would be private equity firms given that “The higher education sector is considered to have all the trademarks for further private equity interest and investment” (p44). That means, to put it simply that ‘we’ can make money out of higher education.

This strategy merits both a factual and an ‘in principle’ response.  Even a passing acquaintance with the higher education system would show how out of touch this report is.  It is simply unrealistic to expect Ireland to attract greater numbers of international students without investing greater resources and against formidable competition.  The notion that the corporate sector will invest in higher education research is contradicted by the evidence and the obvious fact that they are looking for a private subsidy not to support a public good.  Sweating the assets is no solution at all, insofar as all reports recognise that this is already quite intense.  Focusing on profitable programmes only would not only skew the curriculum (to put it mildly) but there is also no indication that profitable programmes would subsidise those deemed ‘non-profitable’.

In principle we have a problem with a report that does not even vaguely understand that education is, in fact, a public good.  It tells us that stripped of non-profitable courses and with its main functions outsourced it might be seen as a sector which private equity firms would be interested in.  No thanks! would be the response of anyone working or studying in our colleges and universities.                               .

If we take a cursory look at where this type of strategy has led internationally we can get a fairly clear picture of how Ireland would end up if this strategy prevails.  The bid to privatise higher education has gone furthest in the United States.  Recently the US Senate concluded a two year long investigation of ‘for profit’ higher education providers and found that on average they spent twice as much on marketing than teaching (which amounted to 15% of expenditure).  People from disadvantaged background were being sold ‘sub-prime degrees’ to go will their ‘sub- prime’ mortgages and over half were forced to drop out within two years saddled with a big debt and not even an unfinishable degree.  One company, the Apollo Group, was even found to have wrongfully obtained $3 billion in federal student aid.  In the UK this privatisation drive is now well under way with political blessing.  Sovereign Capital, the private equity firm which owns the profitable Greenwich School of Management even managed to get its co-founder appointed government spokesperson in education in the House of Lords.  This surely gives a new spin to the ‘public private partnership’ concept.

Clearly in Ireland today there are some economic and political forces that would wish to see a market solution to the problems facing Irish higher education.  It would seem that they have learnt nothing from the unprecedented collapse of the Irish economy precisely due to following a free-market unregulated approach.  Of course some political parties have always defended the interests of big business but now this discourse seems generalised, despite its responsibility for the global crash in 2008 and the ignominious collapse of the ‘Celtic Tiger’.

Within higher education we also see the emergence of closely integrated economic, political and state interests coming together behind this agenda.  For example, we have Hibernia College a private online higher education college focused on teacher training but also works closely with industry around health sciences, costing, business and management.  Fees vary but can be up to €10.000 per annum.  What is most significant is that the Chairman of Hibernia College is none other than Don Thornhill ex Secretary General of the Department of Education and Science and Executive Chairman of the Higher Education Authority.  We can legitimately ask whether the state and its functionaries should play such a prominent role in a private higher education provider and whether the current Minister for Education and Training approves of such symbiotic not to say self-serving relationships.

The first thing we need to note in considering the Grant Thornton solution to the crisis in Irish higher education is that it simply would not work.  No amount of Hibernia Colleges can substitute for the massive infrastructure and long history of the higher education system.  Much as in the health service where the private sector can only exist on the basis of the public sector it is parasitic on.  Also a university would not be a university if it simply did away with the ‘humanities’ disciplines, significantly not mentioned even once in the Grant Thornton report.  It would not even make market sense for Ireland to diminish its presence in literature and history for example.  It will also not work because it simply assumes that those working and studying in higher education are just passive spectators.  Indeed it seems quite clear that teachers, researchers, support staff and students have a better understanding of the national interest than companies such as Grant Thornton and their supporters in government and in higher education ‘senior management’.

The time is clearly now ripe to present an alternative to the market non-solution presented by Grant Thornton and their supporters who would stand to benefit personally if their policy prescriptions prevailed. Certainly neither higher education staff nor students should, or can, be asked to suffer any further.  Staff should not be subject to any further deterioration in their pay and conditions.  The current moves towards ever greater casualization of staff need to be halted.  As to students they already pay a very high charge of (€ 3000 per student) which places an unsustainable burden on many households.  Current discussions around student loans should be halted and a cap placed on all charges.  Higher education is a public good and society at large needs to have a greater say in the future.  A broad social engagement with the future of higher education could produce a momentum towards adequate funding for a higher education system geared towards social needs and not private profit.

We believe that a much greater degree on transparency and accountability is needed in the running of higher education institutions.  If we are to seek a way beyond the current crisis in a spirit of partnership then the higher education institutions need a far greater representation by staff, students and society on their governing authorities.  That means the USI and relevant staff unions should have direct representation and society might be represented by local partnership or community representation.  At present there is a real lack of any debate, with HEI management acting like the CEOs of the corporate sector.  We also need more transparency in terms of industry interests in higher education as well as an open register of all HEI staff commercial interests.  Pay for top managers and some professors should also be declared as what they are: ‘top-ups’.  We would like to see the HEI’s committing to some basic principles on the nature of higher education and a joint pursuit with staff, students and society of a sustainable and equitable way beyond the crisis.