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The Big Interview: Dr. Michael Murphy

The UCC President is put through his paces on library hours, semesterisation problems and the value of a UCC degree by Stephen Barry


The first thing people tell you before going to question Michael Murphy is that he is hard to pin down: his mantra is that he doesn’t micromanage. It’s something he reaffirms himself before the interview begins: a list of five topics sent in advance are addressed with that caveat: ‘I don’t micromanage.’

Perhaps the simple reason is that Murphy is an outward looking President, one who defends grade inflation claims versus “comparable universities in the English speaking world,” ranking falls on overall score increases and library opening hours on a like-for-like basis: “we are not the worst in the country. Now, that’s not what I would have wished to have as a banner headline and we need to do better,” he swiftly adds.

“There were challenges on the industrial relations front because you can only open libraries and provide functions when you have complete cooperation.”

He twice insists that he doesn’t lose sleep over grade inflation peaks or ranking fluctuations, he shrugs his shoulders in response to one semesterisation related question and doesn’t know details about plans for the Student Hub, which will revamp the Windle Building. His is a university run on laying down first principles and policies, ensuring practices and processes are right and leaving committees to perform their designated functions.

The former two-term Philosoph Auditor and Students’ Union Vice-President didn’t hear of students having essays due during the exam period until asked about the occurrence and sees this as a consequence of the demands of the job title: “I have to engage with the outside world as well as the inside world,” he surmises.

However library hours, the hot topic of the past season, is one which he has looked at since it gathered national attention and seen a need for change. It is from the staff that he has asked for the flexibility required to ensure a lasting change from December’s successful sit-in protests.

“‘Were the determinants of library closing exclusively in the hands of university management?’,” Murphy asks himself. “My understanding is that there were challenges on the industrial relations front because you can only open libraries and provide functions when you have complete cooperation from all those who are needed.

“I have asked that everything possible be done to improve the service for term two. Obviously, conditions did change in December and the question now is ‘whatever work practices were changed, can that now allow us to improve the service for the coming term?’ My hope is that it will.”

He avoids the issue of what it says about the university to wait until a student protest before seeking a means to change.

“The state needs to enable the private sector to put loan systems in place”

At the best of times Murphy is an evasive interviewee – something that will make tonight’s Student Council interrogation somewhat routine, especially if last year’s pillow fight was anything to go by. However, he is consistent and even on some of his biggest successes he doesn’t give or know the finer details that I seek. His stabilisation and reduction of college debt, a serious issue at the beginning of his term after some large-scale building works, will be a defining pillar of his Presidency, yet he doesn’t divulge how deep in the red the college was on his arrival.

That he managed to balance the books from a position of minus €12m or €14m in the annual budget alone, and at a time of vastly reduced exchequer funding, was a necessary move but he is aware that the cutbacks under his watch have impeded the student learning experience.

“They have,” he concedes, after a long, sighing pause, “in the sense that there are services that we would have been providing to a better degree than is the case now or what we would like to be doing. If you look at the staff-student ratios, for example, they’ve deteriorated over the past six years from something in the region of one staff to 19 students to one staff to 24 students or more.”

NOBEL CAUSE: Murphy pictured with Nobel Prize winner John O’Keefe last month. Image by: Clare Keogh

Technical support staff and counsellors per student have also decreased in a time when student numbers have risen to over 19,500.

The rise in student numbers has also been met with an accommodation shortage, with Murphy outlining that he has dictated for the university to increase control of student accommodation to create more spaces. Indeed, constructing a new university-controlled complex has not been ruled out: “It’s all about affordability and projections on what income from it will be.”

On semesterisation, a pet-project of Murphy’s after noting that UCC was one of two Irish colleges without the system, he bluntly sets out the broad circumstances. “Opening principle: semesterisation has been a big project with lots of complexities. We are just about hearing about the outcomes of the first semester.

“I’ve heard a number of people express concerns about some departments that did not do the necessary work to ensure proper balancing of assessment workload and so on. That I have heard. On the other hand, I meet people in the street who tell me that the students have been thrilled to have semesterisation because it has balanced out their work through the year and they anticipate less stress in the second half.”

Beyond that, Murphy will await a comprehensive, formal review for a rounded assessment of what, he is sure, will be an imperfect implementation.

His priorities continue to move on and his current number one project is making former UCC Professor George Boole a global name, “as a consequence of which the reputation and standing of the university will be enhanced and the value placed on a student’s degree out of UCC will be higher.”

He is also keen to defend that reputation in dismissing grade inflation and rankings, again without “losing sleep” over reactionary conclusions. Paddy Cosgrave, a board member of the Higher Education Authority, gets a dagger for suggesting that a Trinity degree was of greater value than other Irish institutions: “I do not believe it would be borne out on critical analysis. Paddy Cosgrave’s rationale for saying what he says is known only to himself.”

Murphy is animated in his armchair throughout the hour-long examination but he recites what seems an oft repeated answer about the pathway third-level education should take into the future.

“The financing of higher education has to be a shared responsibility between the state and the student. It’s a perfect storm: a state that’s broke and people who are strapped for money.

“Into the future the state has to restore some of the cuts that it has imposed and I would certainly look at differential fees for people, depending on what courses they take [based on the cost of the course to the university]. The state needs to enable the private sector to put loan systems in place to make sure that, at the end of the day, universities have enough resources to provide as good a quality of educational experience as it can possibly do.”

The interview ends as Murphy’s next appointments arrive, although he takes the time to ask for an opinion on journalism courses. I doubt their necessity although I would like to see Murphy involved in one, especially after an interview which answered some questions but raised many more: Will the library find a resolution? What will his legacy be once his term ends? And what exactly does he lose sleep over?


Main image by: Jason Clarke Photography

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