University teacher's union criticises Conor Lenihan speech

The General Secretary of the Irish Federation of University Teachers, Mike Jennings, has warned of the negative effects of allowing private interests dictate research produced in Irish universities.

Jennings claimed that budget cuts and an emerging need for universities to attract private capital in order to fund research are a "huge curtailment on the horizons of research" and "a massive intrusion into the whole idea of a university".

Jennings was responding to comments made by Conor Lenihan TD, Minister for Science, Technology, Innovation and Natural Resources. Speaking at a preview of the Europe 2020 Strategy, the minister remarked that "there is a strong need to demonstrate the tangible economic and societal benefits that arise from research in order to be able to sustain our investments. We must also continue to learn from each other in terms of mechanisms to improve the environment for industry-academic collaboration".

Speaking to Politico, Jennings outlined what he sees as problems inherent in allowing the private sector too important a role in the funding of third level education.

"In the universities at the moment there is an almost total embargo on all recruitment and all promotion, and there is a requirement that they downsize their staff numbers by a minimum of 6 per cent. The only exception to this rule is that universities will be allowed to employ staff if they can procure external funding"

If this trend continues, Jennings warned that in coming years "more and more of the core academic staff in universities [will be] there not by virtue of government policy, not by virtue of the requirements of the Irish education system, not by virtue of the needs of society in the future, but simply on the basis of what corporations either nationally or internationally decide is their own priority".

Although Jennings was eager to point out that he has no difficulty with privately funded research in principle, he stressed that  "it makes no more sense to me to have someone decide who runs our education system by virtue of the size of their checkbook".

Jennings compared the practice to "having hospital location determined solely on the basis of where is the most profitable place to build them, or where roads are going to be built simply on the basis of external private sector funding".

Although contacted by Politico, Minister Lenihan's office has yet to issue a reply to the concerns outlined by Jennings.