For much of this decade there has been a growing call for universities to reform, or be reformed. In 2001 the Conference of Heads of Irish Universities (CHIU – now the Irish Universities Association) and the Higher Education Authority jointly published a report written by Malcolm Skilbeck (The University Challenged). This made a number of recommendations for improving the university sector, of which a large proportion concerned structural reform: the improvement of governance and management, the diversification of income through commercialisation and entrepreneurship, the improvement of strategic planning methods and monitoring of outcomes, and so forth.
In 2004 the Government-commissioned OECD report on Irish Higher Education (Review of Higher Education in Ireland) again made a number of recommendations for university reform, many of them concerned with improvements in management and governance.
Throughout this time the universities themselves were undertaking significant structural reforms – most of them undertaken first in my own university, DCU. They included the rationalisation of academic structures, the establishment of devolved budgeting and accounting, reforms of academic planning, and so forth. Some of these reform processes passed off without serious internal argument in the institutions concerned (as was the case in DCU), whereas in other universities there were considerable debates and disagreements; and in some cases the structural reform processes continued for some time.
All of this was accompanied by a fair amount of noise in public, political and media commentary about the need for continuing reform, although it would have to be said that some commentators seemed to be unaware of the reform processes already undertaken or even of the conditions which had preceded the reforms – the call for reform was often a mantra not greatly informed by analysis.
In fact, there is little doubt that reform was needed. Universities were not structurally well suited to dealing with an external environment that was making new and challenging demands of them, from the call to increase participation in higher education to the drive for more academic networking with business and with the wider community. Universities also on the whole did not conform to the emerging principles of good corporate governance.
Nevertheless, it is also arguable that the focus on structural reform took too much attention away from educational and research substance. Some institutions became so focused on – or even obsessed with – organisational issues that it became hard to identify the strategic goals of either those proposing the reforms or those fiercely resisting them. So it is possible that a good strategic analysis of how the pedagogical goals of higher education and the national needs for globally excellent research could best be met was initially not pursued with any real urgency. More recently, these issues have come into focus, partly helped by the processes for awarding resources under the HEA’s Strategic Innovation Fund and by a strongly strategic approach of research funding bodies such as Science Foundation Ireland.
Right now, in 2008, it is likely that university reform will again become an agenda item in discussions between the government and the universities. As part of the strategic review of higher education announced by the Minister for Education and Science, and in the context also of the debate about funding and tuition fees, more questions will be raised about how universities are managing their affairs, the appropriate extent of their autonomy, and how they allocate and prioritise their resources.
It is not unreasonable for such discussions to take place, or for the public to want to see evidence that universities are well managed and are using their resources wisely. But it is also reasonable to say that we must focus more on what we do, and not always on how we do it. I have taken the view in DCU that the structural reforms we undertook in 2001-2002 were desirable, but that we should not aim for further structural or organisational changes for a while if we can help it, so that staff can work in as stable an environment as can be secured. University reform is often used by commentators as code for an assertion that universities are inefficient, customer-unfriendly, wasteful and elitist. In fact like all organisations we need to review constantly what we are doing and be open to continuing change, but almost every review that has been commissioned has concluded that the main obstacle to better performance is the inadequacy of resources. That is where the solution lies; and if we can find the answer to that, it will also be reasonable to require high performance, good value and efficient management, within a context of autonomy and innovation.