It is possible that Irish higher education will experience something of a culture war over the coming period. The new chair of the Higher Education Authority, John Hennessy, has said in a speech to a conference in UCD that ‘higher education needs to move closer to the values and practices of the private sector’. He is reported in the Irish Times as saying that this should in particular mean that universities and colleges should be able to hire and fire in the manner that is normal in industry.
The HEA chair had already attracted attention recently when he suggested that arts and humanities academics tended to ‘hold their nose’ when dealing with industry.On this more recent occasion he may have compensated a little by saying that ‘all students should experience arts and humanities subjects in their first year of college’. And still on the positive side, he has stressed the importance of institutional autonomy in the higher education system.
So what do we make of all this? In many ways it is quite refreshing to have one of the key players in higher education expressing such forthright views, as it will tend to sharpen the debate. At a time when the sector will in any case have to consider radical reforms, his interventions will provide some topics for discussion.
On the other hand, if the HEA chair believes that the answer to current higher education difficulties is to introduce routine private sector management practices into the system, he may find it is not quite as easy as that. It might be worthwhile for him to meet key university representatives and hear more about how the institutions operate and what problems they currently face before making suggestions as to what they need to do.
John Hennessy clearly means to be an audible contributor to higher education debate. That must be good. But while universities can and should learn from the private sector, and while greater institutional autonomy (including autonomy in human resources matters) is indeed a vital ingredient of success, private sector ‘values and practices’ cannot provide the sole blueprint for higher education. It is time to have a dialogue with the HEA chair.