The Higher Education Authority (HEA) has, as part of its programme for implementing the national higher education strategy in Ireland (the Hunt report), has issued a paper setting out how it hopes to develop the structure of the system from its present state. The paper, Towards a Future Higher Education Landscape, makes certain assumptions about the current state of the sector and how it should be reformed. At the heart of these assumptions is the belief that what will make Irish higher education successful will be a much greater diversity of institutional mission that has been nationally coordinated. This position is expressed as follows in the paper:
‘In order to create and sustain a diverse yet coherent system, it will be essential that all institutions have a clear perspective on their particular mission and role within the overall system. In particular, it will be essential that institutions ensure that their programmes continue to be reflective of, and appropriate to, their mission.’
This diversity, the HEA believes, will need to be reflected in ‘greater differentiation based on field specialisation, programme orientation and mode of delivery.’ This in turn will be accompanied by ‘regional clusters’ which will allow students to tap into various specialisms spread across the universities and colleges in their area, at least in areas where there are several institutions that make this possible; and the HEA also envisages ‘mission-based clusters’ that will not depend on geographical proximity. All of this will also, the HEA intends, lead to the ‘elimination of unnecessary duplication of provision’.
The other key plan set out in the paper is to bring to an end the state funding of smaller institutions, which will have to merge with larger universities or colleges in order to survive. Institutes of technology will also have to consider mergers, leading to what the paper says will be ‘a smaller number of multi-campus institutions.’
The HEA rightly recognises that this kind of re-ordering will, as it puts it, ‘not occur in an “organic” way’, and it therefore envisages ‘top-down’ action. It therefore acknowledges a risk to institutional autonomy, but argues that this can be overcome by a phased and ‘agreed’ process of implementation; though one must assume that a different framework from that envisaged is not available to be ‘agreed’. As part of this process, universities and colleges are now to put forward proposals to the HEA involving one or more of options that include merger, clustering, conversion to ‘technological university’, or the establishment of a ‘specialist institution’. In the meantime the HEA will commission a paper addressing ‘the number of institutions, the range of missions and the alliances and relationships which have the potential to strengthen the system.’
What all of this represents is a significant reconfiguration of the Irish system of higher education, from one characterised by autonomous but (increasingly) collaborating institutions, to one based on a national, centrally coordinated plan.
It is easy to see how such a nationally directed system could look neat in a bureaucratic sense, but the HEA paper makes little attempt to explain in what way the system will deliver something better once reconfigured, and how those using it (students, industry, communities) will benefit. It acknowledges that the world’s best universities are highly autonomous, and it accepts that the plan will affect autonomy; but it does not say in any specific way what compensating benefits will emerge. It does not address at all the impact of these changes on basic principles such as academic freedom.
It is true that institutions will be able to propose their own plans for focused mission, but since all this will need to add up across the system as a whole, their ability to design their own strategic options will be seriously limited. And while it is entirely right that a small national system should encourage collaboration, in some contexts excellence requires competition also.
Given its role as funder of the system, the state has a legitimate right to look for both excellence and value for money in higher education. So for example, it can appropriately question institutions on issues such as unnecessarily overlapping provision, while however bearing in mind that a university will need, in each case, to be able to offer certain intellectual building blocks within the institution. What we are being asked to contemplate here is that institutional autonomy is wasteful, and that a ‘national system’ that distributes educational and research activity amongst institutions characterised by their specialisms will be better. This, it has to be said, is a mighty big experiment, and one without any currently successful model elsewhere to draw on or to provide some comfort. It changes the nature of institutional strategy from content to process, and vests substantive planning in a central structure. In short, it is threatening to replace institutional initiative with central planning, a framework that was not spectacularly successful in countries where it has been tried.
It is hard to resist the view that managing higher education by grand design is not the best way forward. In fact, Irish higher education has impressed both itself and the world with its ability to absorb serious funding cuts while still, more or less, maintaining acceptable levels of excellence and quality. It does this with resources that are now very substantially smaller than those available to less successful competing national systems. There is, in short, no evidence that Ireland’s higher education sector is wasteful. There is no evidence that the existing model is in any serious way deficient. There is therefore little evidence of a need for the kind of centralised system being proposed, and there are many serious risks that will attend its implementation.
I could be proved wrong. But this is a big leap in the dark.