As part of the process that will, we are told, produce a newly reconfigured Irish higher education system, the Higher Education Authority (HEA) has produced another document pointing further in the direction of where it would like the system to go. In this latest document, entitled Completing the Landscape Process for Irish Higher Education, the HEA sets out its intentions as follows.
‘System reconfiguration is aimed at creating a reduced number of higher education institutions of more significant scale and critical mass in the best interests of students. A key objective is to protect the distinctive roles and mission of universities and technological institutes within the Irish system while delivering the quality outcomes in teaching, research and engagement for students and stakeholders envisaged in the National Strategy.’
In fairness to the HEA, its objectives have been stated repeatedly in previous documents and follow a clearly discernible path. It wants fewer higher education institutions; and in particular it wants mergers amongst the institutes of technology, the absorption of teacher training colleges into universities, and a much higher level of specialisation in all institutions including universities. It believes that this will remove or lessen inefficiencies and produce what it calls ‘scale’, or critical mass. It also wants regional clustering, so that institutions in the same general area (though ‘area’ is understood in a somewhat elastic way, as it seems for example to include the entire west coast of Ireland) form part of a coherent structure. It also wants the development of a centralised national strategy that will inform individual institutional direction. All of this is to lead to what the document describes as a ‘co-ordinated and consolidated higher education system’.
The objectives being pursued here have become part of the public narrative of higher education in Ireland, and are repeated by officials and politicians in a manner to suggest that they are obviously appropriate. But whether they really are appropriate, and certainly whether they are necessary, has not ever really been established through the presentation of anything that might count as evidence. Rather, a set of largely unproven assumptions – with some assumptions that have been shown to be highly questionable if not simply wrong, such as that of ‘scale’ – have taken on iconic status. They are driving policy making, and are threatening to create a new layer of bureaucratic control. They are set to replace the traditional principle of institutional autonomy, on the again quite unproven assertion that this no longer serves the interests of Irish higher education or society.
It would be unfair to suggest that all these plans are wrong. Coordinating institutional objectives with national priorities is potentially useful. Encouraging strategic collaboration is right. But the picture emerging here goes beyond that, and reveals a higher education ‘system’ that is structured to fit a centralised bureaucratic model.
The HEA has overall been a good friend of the higher education sector, but it has allowed itself to be persuaded that something is wrong where there are no real signs of anything untoward. In consequence attention that could usefully be directed to some much more obviously beneficial reform, particularly given the changing pedagogical and demographic trends of recent years, is now being focused on a structural reconfiguration that hardly seems called for and that could actually undermine innovation and creativity within the sector.
Probably this path is now set, and there are few signs that there is any resistance from the institutions themselves. I still doubt it is the right path, however. Furthermore, the journey down this path is beginning just as other countries, for example Germany, are moving in the opposite direction, as they have come to realise the importance of university autonomy. It’s a strange world.