Bonus Round


With the Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn’s new plans to ban large bonuses for university staff, Colm Egan looks at the ramifications it may have on university education

It’s a natural number, a composite number and the second perfect number. It denotes the day of November 2012 when we will have the next lunar eclipse and also the length of the average menstrual cycle. However, 28 is also the number of places UCD dropped in the latest Times University Rankings.

Undoubtedly, the next number of weeks will likely witness much finger pointing and accusation dodging, but the root of the problem is, as ever, money. This is a problem which would only be exaggerated should Ruairi Quinn’s latest proposals come into law. The proposal in question is to ban all unauthorised payments to senior academics in Irish Universities. This is in response to the €7.5 million unauthorised allowances that were paid to 223 senior academics across the country from 2005 to 2011, €33 million of which was paid by UCD to 77 staff.

Universities, just like any other institution, must compete for high calibre staff and the most competitive battleground determines the size of the wage packet. The importance of this issue is illustrated by the difficulty the government has had in maintaining a public service salary cap. Indeed the enforcing of such a cap could be, quite convincingly, argued to be a false economy. Should a less than competent individual be appointed to run a large semi-state body such as RTE or Electricity Ireland, the inefficiencies this creates would manifest themselves in increased costs for a variety of reasons, none of which would be long in making a larger salary looking very measly indeed.

This false economy principle translates into third level education seamlessly. Low wages lead to lower calibre academics, leading to less citations and less illustrious research and thus lower rankings.  Indeed, low rankings could just as easily be deemed an input in such a process as an output. Leading academics are not inclined to leave top institutions to join a university which is currently struggling to stay in the top 200 in the world, regardless of the salary. This point is hammered home by the fact that, as of 2010, 19 heads of British universities were paid in excess of £300,000 (there were 31 British Universities in the Top 200). In fact, for the current academic year, the top wage bracket at Harvard University ranges from $219,000 to $409,600.

It is not that Ruari Quinn does not understand the consequences, unintentional for the most part, of banning such payments, in fact he probably does. Indeed the recent RTE ‘fly-on-the-wall’ documentary of the Irish Department of Education illustrated that, despite what many ‘independent’ observers and opposition spokespeople would have you believe, he doesn’t spend his days formulating ideas to bring our education system to its knees.  He wants to make a difference and as long as this desire is present, actions should soon follow.

However, Quinn is a politician first and foremost, and staying in power has to be very near the top of his list of priorities and concerns. Eliminating politically dangerous unauthorised payments is a mandatory step to survive in our current climate. However, if we want our Universities to survive in this economy, such payments should instead become authorised, not outlawed. A glance at the latest Times University Rankings makes this clear.

UCD is not alone is its disappointing performance. A number of well-regarded British universities have also tumbled down the rankings, Bristol and Sheffield among their number, with Sussex having dropped out of the top 100 altogether. The tide is turning towards the big spending Asian universities that have been mounting quite an assault on the rankings in recent years. South Korea is a perfect case in point, as it now has four universities in the top 200, all of which moved up the rankings by an average of 24 places. Hong Kong contributes another four to the top 200 while both of Singapore’s two leading Universities have made large strides. That’s all without mentioning China.

Although only two universities in the top 200 represent the Asian superpower, a group of elite universities has been earmarked for large investment and have been called the C9. The nine Universities are expected to enter the top 200 with some vigour in the coming years and will no doubt illustrate three things very clearly to those at the helm in this country: money talks.

While the Oxford and Princeton may have centuries of prestige, honour and prowess to attract the best students and academics, the colleges that don’t compensate in other, financially aided methods. It also conveys how quickly universities are improving. In fact, UCD scored higher in this year’s rankings than last year, although the trouble is, so did everyone else. Improvement no longer suffices. Radical improvement is now par for the course, and Asia is about to hit a hole in one.

It too makes it abundantly clear that investment is needed in our own universities if Ireland is to compete internationally. A €250 increase in registration fees won’t get us there and we’re deluding ourselves if we think otherwise. As President of UCC Dr. Michael Murphy pointed out in the run up to last year’s budget, fees of €4,500 – €5000 are required for Irish Universities to maintain standards.

Top universities require top academics to function but without funding we will very soon be a country with neither.