Launching the strategic review

On March 4 the Minister for Education and Science, Mr Batt O’Keeffe TD, launched the review that is to produce a new national strategy for higher education in Ireland, when he addressed the first meeting of the steering committee that is to oversee the review. His address on the whole was restricted to general remarks about the value and nature of higher education, but the following extract is worth quoting verbatim:

We have to keep in mind at all times that our higher education system operates in a global context, and that the standards we pursue are not regional or national, but global. We need to maintain a strong focus on system wide performance in Irish higher education. None of our institutions can hope to rival the financial muscle of a Harvard. That is an unrealistic and inappropriate target. But what is important is that our system, with diverse institutional missions and roles, offers education and performs research that meets the very best international standards. To achieve that we need to look very critically at the respective roles and relationships of institutions to ensure that the sector is appropriately configured to perform its manifold roles to new standards of excellence. I have previously stated that I want the higher education strategy to address the need for re-organisation and re-configuration of roles within the system.

What this tells us – or appears to tell us – is that the Minister is particularly concerned with the structures of higher education, rather than, say, the content of its programmes or the quality of its outputs; although of course it could be argued that structures are an important facilitator of these desirable objectives. My concern however is that the strategic review may become focused on structure and process within the system, rather than on pedagogical, research or innovation aspects.

My own view of strategy has always been that structure and process follow content, not the other way round. We do not, as yet at least, have a national consensus on the substantive objectives of higher education, and we need to concentrate on that in the first instance, before tackling structural and related issues (which I agree we shall need to address). The questions which I would suggest the review should tackle first include: (a) the relationship between higher education and national economic, social and cultural objectives; (b) the extent to which higher education should develop in a discipline-based or inter-disciplinary way; (c) subject areas in which Irish universities can provide global leadership; (d) the ways in which universities can stimulate economic recovery and sustainable growth. Through addressing these issues, or others like them, a strategic review can then pave the way for an informed debate on structure and institutional rationalisation.

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2 Comments on “Launching the strategic review”

  1. Iain Says:

    Perfectly sensible comments, the difficulty is of course the extent to which little deals are being made in the corridors, so to speak, with some institutions looking to their own futures more perhaps than taking the wider national picture?

    When the review was announced a couple of us mused over the possibility of having a parallel ‘independent commission’ looking at the bigger picture, sharing ideas (probably online) and looking at long term as well as short term needs. It would have to be positive though, rather than provide a focal point for the cynicism and negativity that tends to hang around some quarters when these issues are raised and that has become more of a challenge as the economic crisis continues to deepen! Anyway, your blog is doing a good job at raising the issues.

  2. Perry Share Says:

    Ferdinand – your post here suggests that, like most of those in the university sector, you see it as synonymous with the higher education sector.

    It is important to recognise that the Institute of Technology sector makes up almost half of student enrolments and is a very significant player in some fields (eg art, design, tourism, construction &c). It also has an increasingly well-qualified staff cohort, who are at risk of exclusion given the university-fixated nature of most HE commentary. This represents a major under-utilisation of human capital, to put it in utilitarian terms.

    It is also worth noting that the ITs have a much better record of facilitating broad-based access than do the majority of unis.

    I hope that the review of HE takes a comprehensive overview of the sector as a whole, and does not focus inordinantly on the desires of two institutions! (one of which I graduated from).

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