If you were to pin down the key element that defines a globally successful higher education system, what would it be? Some might be tempted to argue that success flows from the wealth of resources available to the sector, either through public funding or through success in generating revenues and donations. But in fact while money is always a factor in some way, it may not be the critical one. It is in fact more likely that autonomy – understood as the ability of universities to devise their own strategies and implement them without government intervention – is the deciding feature. In fact, it is arguable that autonomy in turn facilitates successful revenue generation and the accumulation of capital reserves from donations and other sources.
It is interesting that this analysis has not just been adopted by those who operate within the Anglo-American model of higher education (particularly the American one), but now also by influential Europeans. The most recent contribution to this debate has come from the always interesting President of Maastricht University and former social democratic Minister of Education in the Netherlands, Jo Ritzen. Writing in the latest issue of Times Higher Education, Dr Ritzen argues that European universities have lost out to American ones and can only improve their position if governments grant them ‘full autonomy’ with appropriate levels of accountability:
‘Autonomy allows institutions to respond more directly to the needs of students and those of the labour market, and it increases the attention given by universities to innovation and internationalisation. Accountability is intimately connected to autonomy, granted by government on condition of clear responsibility with respect to the goals of the university.’
I would personally add that ‘accountability’ is not the same as ‘regulation’ and ‘control’.
Ireland, like other European countries, needs to take these insights into account as we struggle to decide what strategic direction our system of higher education should take. Right now the tendency is to suggest that government regulation and control needs to be tighter. If we go down that road, we may expect our system of higher education to be second rate. It is not a good option for us.