A new heavy touch?

The Irish Times on Saturday carried a report of a speech by Mr Tom Boland, the chief executive of the Higher Education Authority, at a conference in the Dublin Institute of Technology:

‘Mr Boland said the era of light-touch regulation by government of higher education was drawing to a close. This approach, he said, has “given us unnecessary and inefficient duplication in programme provision. It has given us mission creep, inflexible staffing structures and practices and it has given us a fragmented system of institutions which to a very great extent stand apart and aloof from each other.’

Tom Boland is a good friend of the university sector, and we need to take seriously what he says. Furthermore, there is little doubt that one of the biggest issues facing us over the period ahead is the nature and extent of the framework of regulation and the degree to which universities are externally directed. We also need to accept that his characterisation of the system quoted above is widely shared in the political system, and also more generally in society.

Some people working in universities may not find it easy to recognise the description of the sector. For the past decade universities have added large numbers of students for comparatively little additional money, they have become good at developing and maintaining strong research partnerships with each other, they have become much more serious at strategic planning, they have undertaken large-scale internal reforms, they have introduced quality assurance system, and much more. So is the sector still suffering duplication, inflexibility, fragmentation and a lack of cooperation?

We need to avoid the temptation to be defensive, and so it is only fair to say that there are still problems in the sector that need to be addressed. The view that some rationalisation is necessary, at least in terms of the avoidance of duplication of some courses, may not be unreasonable, and it is probably true that there is some fragmentation. On the other hand, there is no evidence at all that tighter bureaucratic controls are the answer, particularly as in most European countries the view is gaining ground that internationally competitive universities thrive in systems where there are lower levels of regulation and control.

But it is also impossible to avoid one other conclusion: that universities have been extraordinarily bad at communicating the quality of what they do and the extent of the changes they have undertaken to their stakeholders and to the wider public. We may feel that we have implemented all sorts of changes and provided hugely cost-efficient programmes of study; but this is not how we are seen by others.

I hope that the era of light touch regulation is not drawing to a close. But if we want to preserve and enhance autonomy and independence of action, we need to show a much greater sense of coordination and common purpose, as well as an ability to maintain efficiency and value. This needs to be pursued in partnership with the HEA and with government, but in the context of a clear sense of direction that we are able to demonstrate. And we need to have strong and articulate voices speaking on behalf of the sector to the general public.

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14 Comments on “A new heavy touch?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    It must be nice to be seen as a national resource and a valuable one at that, like a gold mine or an oilfield. Not to be seen as a walloping huge hole ready to swallow any amount of cash.
    But then, you do not go out of your way to aid matters for yourselves by your treatment of the students while they are attending nor with the chugging communications one receives after one has finished.
    No, I doubt very much if any who ever attended an Irish institution could say they ‘felt the love’.
    Certain things well within the hands, like food quality in the dining halls, or the safety of all accommodation is treated with a degree of contempt that one of the large commercial business could never afford to display. No one expects to be cosseted, simply a weather eye from those who have a history of the climate.
    The problem at the moment is that most Uni’ do not see an upside to doing this. There would be a current cash implication in employing a person to view off campus housing and the cashbooks would take a hit if the food was better. But the dignity given would be returned, not soon but in the future.

    I had to look up ‘mission creep’ on the wiki, I thought it was a military term, but it seems to have evolved though.

  2. Ernie Ball Says:

    Funny how bureaucratic controls are not the answer for regulation of the university sector but bureaucratic controls are ALWAYS the answer when the new managerialists set about “reforming” the individual universities under their charge. I guess it’s a case of the doctors not liking the medicine they themselves dispense.

    I have a better idea: both universities as a whole and THE PEOPLE WHO WORK IN THEM (lecturers and students) thrive when there are lower levels of administration and control, particularly centralised and bureaucratic control of the sort that we see in most Irish universities today.


    • Ernie, I don’t know which university or universities you have in mind or have particular experience of, but I certainly have never taken the view that internal bureaucratic controls are a good thing; indeed it has been my policy to reduce or remove them wherever possible. I agree that we need to work as a community.

      • Ernie Ball Says:

        I’m a lecturer who was recruited internationally by a major Irish university, one that is arguably at the forefront of the new managerialism. This university has seen a sea-change in its organisation and work practices in recent years and that change has not been for the better. It has involved the imposition of extra layers of bureaucracy (staffed by very highly-paid bureaucrats), meddlesome management attempts to control if not dictate centrally what lecturers should teach and research, an audit culture that emphasises quantitative measures of production to the exclusion of all else in an attempt to “pick winners,” and an overall reduction in staff autonomy. The system also involves rampant cronyism since centralised control only works if you can be sure that all those down the chain or command are loyal fellow travelers. Decisions, as a result, are taken out of the hands of those closest to the problems and kicked up the line to the Sun King or his courtesans.

        Surely you recognise this picture? My understanding was that something similar was going on at your university and most of the Irish universities in an ill-starred attempt to placate the funders. Well, it turns out the funders want the same sort of arrangement for the university managers themselves: centralised control and a reduction in autonomy. And the managers (university presidents included), unsurprisingly don’t like the idea.

        Notice what this contradiction says about the university and its staff. The front-line staff are clearly all lazy layabouts who, left to their own devices, will do nothing worth doing unless they are told what to do and threatened with punishment if they do not. That’s all they deserve. The truly creative and energetic forces of the university are its administrators. They should be given an unfettered hand to do lead the university in the direction they see fit without any interference by either the lazy layabout below them or the know-nothings who pay the bills.

        I’m of the retrograde belief that, absent an Obama-like figure (and there are no such figures at the heads of Irish university, with all due respect), real “innovation,” to use a word that’s been sucked dry of all meaning by the current crowd, comes from the “bottom,” not the “top” and that administrations should serve the needs of those doing the actual work of the university and not the other way around.

        But I nevertheless welcome the idea of HEA control of university management. The heavier the hand the better. It couldn’t be any worse for front-line staff than what we have now and it will teach the most perspicacious of the administrators a valuable lesson about devolving autonomy. Unfortunately, the lesson is likely to be lost on most of the administrators I know, who lack such perspicacity, current company excepted.


        • Ernie, I won’t comment on your university, but what you describe is not typical at all, and so, while not arguing with you about your own experience, I wonder whether you should withhold comment on other institutions until you have had a closer look at them. Most Irish universities have made huge strides in developing what they do, with the full engagement of staff, and without bureaucratising or controlling the system. Certainly my view is that we should encourage initiative and innovation and should give credit to those who do it. Feel free to come and see DCU at any time.


        • Ernie, you wrote: ‘But I nevertheless welcome the idea of HEA control of university management. The heavier the hand the better.’

          I’m afraid the main victims of such heavier control would be the frontline staff: the likely targets of such control would be monitoring staff performance, the elaboration of the syllabus, and so on. It would run wholly against the international consensus as to what constitutes good practice.

          • Ernie Ball Says:

            OK, I was being a bit facetious. I don’t really welcome it. But it would be somewhat satisfying to see poor administrators at my place get a dose of their own medicine.

            That said, Ireland will want to be very careful about how it manages its universities, particularly staff, in the future (or ‘going forward’ as the bureaucrats say). The one aspect of Ireland’s universities that is somewhat globalised is the mobility of their staff. If administration becomes more onerous than administration elsewhere, the best staff will vote with their feet.

            As I say, I was recruited internationally and I’d be perfectly happy to go back to my original country if I decide that the tax cuts, ‘pension levies’ and burdensome management style are making continuing to do my job in Ireland too difficult to be worth it. The style of management I see in my university is typical of third-rate institutions whose leaders have no confidence in their staff. They lack this confidence not on the basis of any empirical evidence of underachievement relative to per capita funding, but on the basis of ‘gut feeling’ and political expediency. Simply put, it’s easier for management to blame staff than to take responsibility themselves (by the way: where is the accountability for university presidents? What are the benchmarks for success or failure? Is it solely about rising in specious league tables?) These leaders also have no confidence in themselves and little understanding about the history of the institution of the university which is why they are all too eager to adopt the facile and wrongheaded solutions provided by the latest management trends. The fact that, unlike DCU, at my university we have run up massive debt to pay for a battalion of vice-presidents and teams of consultants whose sole purpose is to provide cover for the decisions of those ostensibly leading us only makes such political control more likely. But if that control falls on the front line staff rather than on the (mis)manager, the best will leave and the talented elsewhere will no longer be attracted and Ireland will be left more an educational backwater than ever. Truly a gloomy prospect.

  3. Hugh Says:

    The last thing the Universities need is too much regulation, light-touch or otherwise. In general, Government is just not very good at micro-management. Government’s responsibility should be limited to agreeing national educational priorities, defining the results we require from the Universities in return for our investment, and establishing a mechanism to police the delivery of these results.

    The Universities are well capable of adjusting to changing times, and have demonstrated a willingness (despite some internal rumblings )to do so, viz. UCD/TCD collaboration, your own discussions with NUIM and RCSI, and recent internal management and organisational reforms across the sector.

    Part of the “image problem” that you allude to above might be related to another problem referred to by Mr. Boland – the quality of undergraduates (see my separate comment). If the Universities are perceived to be producing graduates whose quality and employability is in doubt, is it any wonder that questions are being raised about effectiveness and value for money?

  4. Hugh Says:

    The article referred to has the following quote from Mr. Boland:

    “Increasingly, I am hearing alarm at the extent to which our second-level system is producing students who learn to the test; who in ever greater numbers are not learning to think for themselves; who receive spoon-feeding at second level and expect the same at third.”

    What an indictment of our second-level system! Many years ago, I remember discussing our education system with a lecturer who had experience in both Ireland and the UK. He described a major difference between students here and in the UK as a willingness and an ability here to think in practical terms and outside the curriculum. A generalisation, no doubt, but I do believe that many of us (and not just students) have given up thinking for ourselves.

    While the NCCA seems to have begun to recognise and address this, for example with Project Maths, in my view they haven’t gone far enough. I believe its time to include formal instruction in Critical Thinking on curricula at both primary and secondary level.

    When I was about to head off to college, the recurrent message was that “Its not going to be like secondary school, you know – you’ll have to use your own initiative and think for yourself”. When did the script change?

  5. cormac Says:

    Hi Ferdinand, re “universities have been extraordinarily bad at communicating the quality of what they do and the extent of the changes they have undertaken to their stakeholders and to the wider public”, I think that is certainly fair comment, and true of some IoTs as well.

    I found the Boland speech a little worrying, but there are two points I absolutely agree with:
    “Rather than chasing world rankings”, he said, “we need to transform Irish higher education from a set of institutions operating in isolation into a coherent, well co-ordinated system of higher education and research”. In my day, universities concentrated in being ‘good’ universities, not on ranking lists which, as you know, have some very starange criteria.
    The other point I liked was
    ““We must focus much more on outputs from the system, rather than inputs,” he said. This is absoutely true in physics research, as far as I can see. Enormous attention is paid to how much funding a given researcher has attracted – and very little to how much research that funding has actually produced!

  6. cormac Says:

    By the way, another article in Saturday’s IT mentioned a new Professorship of Indian Studies at Trinity College, sponsored by the Indian Council for Cultural Relations.

    I would really like to see Trinity or DCU look for a sponsor for a Professorship for the Public Understanding of Science. As you know, such positions are quite common in universities abroad and have proved their worth, both in informing the public on important scientific issues and in raising awareness of the importance of science. It puzzles me that no such positions exist in Ireland (apart from one at UCC, which is not really a formal position), despite a clear need for such an initiative. It would also give great encouragement to younger scientists interested in this area!
    Regards, Cormac

  7. Iain Says:

    I agree that communications is a major issue. Certainly in my experience of being in an Irish university over the last few years, there have been huge changes in terms of the quality of teaching and learning, managing programmes, flexibility and research output – a far more rapid change than I’ve witnessed elsewhere, yet in the public eye and amongst politicians we are still painted with some fairly crude stereotypes.

    What’s a little disturbing about one of these quotes in the use of the term “anecdotal evidence” – isn’t this just a fancy way of saying “gossip”? Surely we need real evidence to shape policy. If such is used it would reveal that in fact Irish education is remarkably cost-effective in comparison to other countries.

    This is not an argument for status quo (no such exists these days) but it is to say that we do need to make the case more effectively that the levels of commitment of so many staff within the sector to improve the quality of the student learning experience and to build national research output are properly recognised.

    I note that Mr. Boland’s comments are about the sector as a whole, which consists of over 30 institutions and not just the 7 universities and in that context there may well be issues of over-provision and some of the other matters he raises.

  8. Perry Share Says:

    Two comments from Tom Boland’s speech (as reported here) would concern me:

    1) the comment re ‘mission creep’. This is clearly directed at the Institute of Technology sector. It appears there is a feeling afoot in the HEA that the ITs need to be put back in their box – specifically that they not be allowed to engage in or teach research – as recommended in the OECD report of a few years back. Given that there has never been any government policy in relation to the ITs’ role in research, this is a bit rich. I suspect that any attempt to limit the role of the ITs in this area will lead to a gradual exodus of the increasing proportion of staff who hold research degrees and who are actively involved in research – despite the lack of funding or recognition. This would mean that whole areas of academic activity – from applied social studies to fine art to mechatronics – will remain un- or under-researched in Ireland. I suppose that doesn’t matter, we can continue to import such knowledge from the UK and the US. Much cheaper.

    ii) unnecessary and inefficient duplication. This is another arrow pointed in the direction of the IT sector. Again one hopes, following Ferdinand’s remarks on this, that any such rationalisation of tertiary provision is evidence rather than prejudice-driven.

  9. Perry Share Says:

    Tom Boland is the CEO of the HEA. In recent years the same HEA has managed two significant schemes that have specifically and deliberately sought to foster collaboration between HEIs (as they call them/us).

    These schemes are the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions [PRTLI] and the Strategic Innovation Fund [SIF]. The proportion of the discretionary income available to the 3rd level sector involved in these schemes has been quite significant, and the competition for these funds has consumed significant resources within the HEIs. (I’m sure the same would apply to the significantly larger funds distributed through Science Foundation Ireland [SFI], but as a non- (natural) scientist I don’t need to bother myself with this source!)

    It would be interesting to know if the Tom Boland’s statement that we continue to have a ‘fragmented system of institutions which to a very great extent stand apart and aloof from each other’ is a statement of the success or otherwise of these schemes, which have been operating now, under HEA guidance, for a number of years.

    In my experience there has been a lot of ‘bottom-up collaboration’ through these schemes, but considerably less at the top level, where a competitive mentality seems to hold sway.


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