Brave New World (The Star)
9 February 2012
Granting autonomy to a few of our public universities looks wonderful. But it will be an exercise in futility if each faculty or department is not free to determine its path.
A FEW public universities in this country have recently been promised autonomy. How nice. I wonder, however, if there is a true understanding among the powers that be as to what university autonomy actually means.
Looking at what is promised to this bunch of soon-to-be-autonomous universities, I have my doubts.
The autonomy in question appears to be very technical in nature. For example, the autonomy to make student selection, determine pay schemes and the freedom to raise funds.
This is all well and good but it is only the tip of the iceberg where the concept of university autonomy is concerned and it also raises some disturbing questions.
The main thrust about university autonomy is that universities must be able to make academic and policy decisions free from any interference.
They are not totally free, of course, because the university council or board or whatever you might want to call it sits at the apex of university administration and the management is answerable to it.
However, this system of accountability is very much in-house and there is no government interference as such.
Furthermore, this autonomy spreads to the various faculties and even the various departments in a university.
Each department should be free to determine its path, and they are the ones who would lay down the standards and values which they consider important for their particular discipline.
For example, what would a Physics department know about what constitutes quality publications in the English department?
Top universities in the world like Harvard acknowledge that the autonomy of their university as well as the component faculties and departments of their university is one of the reasons of their continued success.
Looking at the so-called new more autonomous system being promised, I see no mention of this sort of academic autonomy, and it is worrying because, without it, then any exercise in granting autonomy to universities would be an exercise in futility because the fruits of true autonomy cannot be obtained.
An issue which is also not raised is one of academic freedom. Here, I shall discuss only academic freedom where staff are concerned.
What is the point of having an autonomous university if your academicians are cowed and fearful of teaching, writing and publishing issues which the Government deems sensitive or a threat to national security?
Academic freedom must only be limited by academic rigour; that is to say your work must stand up to standards of academic scholarship.
Academic freedom must not be curtailed either by law or a university management beholden to its political masters.
If the Government is serious about autonomy it must also be serious about academic freedom, and one thing it can do is either revoke the Statutory Bodies Discipline and Surcharge Act or amend it to remove academics from its clutches.
For those of you who don’t read Acts of Parliament in your spare time, this particular law makes it an offence for an academic to say or write anything for or against government policy without prior permission.
It sounds unbelievably obtuse, and that is because it is. Of course every single academic can’t be checked for every single thing he or she says or writes, but this law exists and it hangs like a sword of Damocles over our heads ready to fall down when any one of us is deemed to have displeased those who must not be displeased.
My final concern is about the financial autonomy that is being promised. Is there a price attached to this? I believe there is and the price would be less public funding.
This is a major issue that has to be considered by the people of this country. Should our institutions be funded by public coffers or should they be left on their own to find their funds?
The hardcore capitalists among you will point out that in America all the very best universities are actually private universities. I would like to point out two things.
First, in the US there is a very strong and long running system of endowments. Furthermore, the alumni of US universities tend to be very generous to their alma maters. Perhaps because their donations lead to tax breaks.
We have no such culture here and neither does it exist in Europe where the top universities are all public universities.
Another thing we have to consider is that one of the ways that a privately funded university makes money is by charging astronomical fees. Are we ready for that in this country? Should our people have to pay ludicrous amounts of money for their children’s education?
And on an academic note, if universities are expected to make money and be self reliant, what then of courses which have no immediate financial value?
As a university is also a storehouse of knowledge, what will become of the departments which have little perceptible economic value? Will they disappear? Go the way of the dodo and the philosophy departments in this country?
This so-called new autonomy is supposed to make our universities institutions of excellence. I have my doubts simply because these measures do not go far enough. There are many factors which have not been considered.
It is ironic that with regard to the future of our bodies of higher thinking, there does not appear to have been enough thinking done.