The view from the HEA
Guest blog by Tom Boland
Chief Executive of the Higher Education Authority
I feel a certain trepidation as I begin my maiden voyage in the blogosphere. It’s not as if I go boldly where no man has gone before, but I must at least go boldly. I’ve avoided this medium of communication so far basically because there are so many others that do the job just fine for me. But Professor von Prondzynski has “smoked me out” with his recent comments on university mergers – “Mergermania”.
Ferdinand was commenting on my reported remarks in the Irish Independent on 29 April. The point I had sought to make in a speech to a conference on “Transforming Public Services” was that in higher education we face very considerable challenges, including the combined challenges of growing levels of participation of school leavers, together with meeting the skills needs of those already in the workforce at a time of significant resource constraints. We cannot meet these challenges and continue to have a high quality higher education system unless we do things very differently.
Part of that different approach, in my view, involves the higher education institutions, especially the universities and the institutes of technology, working together in a more co-ordinated and coherent system of higher education, where each contributes according to its strengths to achieving national (as well as institutional) objectives. Universities cannot seek to be all things to all comers – a point which Ferdinand appears to accept in his blog posted May 9 (Philosophical questions). Alliances and collaborations in areas such as programme development and delivery, joint appointments, research and knowledge transfer, that are customised to fit particular purposes, should be part of that new approach. Such arrangements may over time lead to closer union of the institutions concerned where this makes sense from an institutional and national perspective. Why not? The issue is not so much that we need universities of a particular size but that it is difficult to see how we can resource the present structure and ensure quality outcomes with the current fragmented system of stand alone institutions. The cross institutional collaboration or merger of departments, schools and, in time, even whole institutions is one way towards stronger, better resourced institutions and a better service to students.
While I’m in this space I would like to comment on an unrelated matter, prompted by the up-coming retirement of my host on this blog, Professor von Prondzynski. For a variety of reasons trust has been lost by a significant number of people in a wide range of important institutions – politics, the broader public service, the Catholic Church, bankers – the list goes on. Such a widespread loss of confidence is probably unprecedented, and certainly very unhealthy for our society. On the other hand, our higher education system continues to enjoy a high level of confidence for its capacity to deliver what people need in their lives and careers. In a situation of a general loss of trust, could this confidence be put to wider public service? It is noteworthy that our academic leaders are not generally part of the public discourse on matters that affect our society and economy. Individual academics are of course often to be found in the media commenting on their special area of expertise. But what of the role of university presidents as thought leaders and commentators in our society – on topics other than higher education? In response to this question some time ago a president replied to me, only half facetiously, that they are kept too busy by the state in trying to make ends meet. And I acknowledge some truth in that. But it’s not the full story! I believe that the leaders of higher education have the capacity to make a contribution to Irish society and to the debate about our future beyond their already significant contribution to higher education itself.
President von Prondzynski, during his term as President in DCU, has been an exception to the general rule, having acquired and retained a high visibility as a university leader with views to express, who is prepared to express them. Even if one does not always agree with his opinions his voice, at least from his present perspective, will be missed.Explore posts in the same categories: higher education, society, university comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.