Higher education and the link to government
Right now in the United Kingdom a debate is under way as to whether there is a need for a government agency to stand between the higher education institutions and the government itself. In England this agency is the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), and there are equivalent bodies in Wales and Scotland; but none in Northern Ireland, where the relationship is a direct one without an intervening agency. According to a report in the journal Times Higher Education, a number of influential think tanks have recommended the abolition of Hefce, while others (including some politicians) have argued for its retention.
This may become a live issue in Ireland also, with a continuing search for rationalisation in the public sector and reviews of regulatory and other agencies (which has led to the existing plan for a merger between HETAC, FETAC and the NQAI). As a sector, we need to take a view of how the process of distributing public funds should be managed, and how our relationship with government should be structured. In other words, we need to have a coherent view on the role and powers of the Higher Education Authority.
It seems to me that there is a continuing very strong case for the existence of the HEA and for a very significant role for this body. The HEA has been important not just as a distributor of funds, but also as a promoter of analysis and discussion on higher education issues. It has managed, with some considerable integrity, to interpret government to the universities, and the universities to government. The relationship between the institutions and the HEA has been a mature one, in that it has been close but not inter-dependent. Given that the HEA is chronically under-staffed, it is wholly unlikely that any notion of merging it with the Department of Education could save any money, as the tasks would still need to be undertaken; but what would be lost, in all likelihood, would be the capacity to assess and develop the mission of higher education in the public and national interest, as well as the capacity to guide the institutions in a context where the institutions have confidence in the integrity of that process.
I would still take the view I have expressed in the past, however, that the role of the HEA would be better expressed in a name that did not have the word ‘Authority’ in it. The current name reflects a tradition still surviving in Ireland of seeing the state and its agencies as a command structure that exercises control over the lives of citizens. A more appropriate modern concept would see the public service as an enabler and facilitator and guide. Maybe ‘Agency’ would express that better.
PS. The ink had hardly dried on this post (metaphorically, of course), when I read that An Bord Snip (see further posts) is recommending that the HEA be merged into the Department of Education and Science. More on all this later.higher education comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.