Modernising higher education

Right now there are several processes and reviews under way that will have a profound impact on the future of higher education, and which will in all likelihood turn it  into something quite different from the traditional model. In fact, reform and change are needed, and those of us working in the system should not be too defensive about that. However, the question is whether the particular changes that may emerge will be positive or counter-productive. Let me just remind ourselves what these various processes are.

• The strategic review of higher education set up by the Minister for Education and Science. This was initially announced some time ago by the last Minister, Ms Mary Hanafin TD, but it was formally put in place by the current Minister, Mr Batt O’Keeffe TD, in March of this year. While the terms of reference are quite broad, the Minister appears to have placed the rationalisation of higher education at the centre of the review. It is expected hat the steering group charged with conducting the review will report some time towards the end of the year.

• The cabinet discussion concerning the return of tuition fees. Today’s Irish Times reports that the Minister for Education has submitted a 100-page document to the cabinet setting out five options for ‘student contributions,’ with apparently the favoured option being a system of student loans (avoiding any up-front payments). We do not at this point know what the other options are, nor what the timeframe might be for the implementation of a new funding system.

TheEmployment Control Framework‘. As mentioned here yesterday, the Higher Education Authority has told the higher education institutions that there is to be a general embargo on appointments, contract renewals and promotions in the sector, with some exceptions – but all such exceptions would require individual approval by the HEA. Discussions between the Irish Universities Association and the HEA are expected to take place on this; but if the ‘framework’ survives intact it could fundamentally alter the nature of higher education in Ireland.

• Establishment of an ‘innovation taskforce.’ The announcement of this initiative was made last week; it is ostensibly a product of TCD’s and UCD’s ‘innovation alliance’, and the heads of both institutions (along with various others with associations with these colleges) are on the taskforce, which is to be chaired by Dermot McCarthy, Secretary General of the Department of the Taoiseach. The terms of reference focus on the translation of research funding into high value jobs. Given the suspicions aroused initially by the TCD-UCD alliance, this taskforce will probably be watched with some care.

• The Minister’s ‘forensic audit’ of higher education. This was announced by the Minister almost a year ago, and is being conducted by the Comptroller and Auditor-General. What the ultimate purpose may be is not entirely clear.

All of these processes have the capacity to effect profound change, but they are not really part of a coherent overall framework of review. Furthermore, some of these processes are taking place without any involvement of the sector in the discussions (e.g. the discussion about fees), while in others the input or the representation of the sector could be questioned. Also, there could be a suspicion that the driving force behind these reviews and discussions and decisions is not a vision of modernisation, but rather a failure of the political and higher education systems to connect properly in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

It is my view that these reviews and discussions must be placed within an overall strategic vision, which should be articulated much more clearly by the government, and which should be built on a much greater sense of partnership between government and higher education; both sides should make every effort to establish and maintain a greater sense of trust. The universities themselves also need to articulate a clearer vision of how they would see the sector developing, and what kind of change and reform would seem attractive or necessary; and that vision itself must reflect considerable buy-in from the higher education community more widely.

In order to help this along a little I propose to set out in occasional posts over the coming weeks what changes the university sector might contemplate in order to advance a coherent vision of modernisation. A wider debate on this is badly needed.

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8 Comments on “Modernising higher education”

  1. Ernie Ball Says:

    If you loved what they did to the economy, just wait until you see what they do to the universities….

  2. Jilly Says:

    One obvious but important question to ask is what the underlying principles of all these different committees etc are? Are they driven by a deep-seated committment to maintaining and improving standards in higher education? No, didn’t think so…


    • Thanks, Jilly. I agree, and that’s the point I am trying to make: is all this part of a coherent view of where higher education should be going, or is it just a jumble of initiatives that are not connected in any coherent way? If the former, then what is that coherent view?

      • Jilly Says:

        Or are they, jumbled or not, part of a plan to decimate the higher education system through a mixture of political interference and even more under-funding?

        While I’m always willing to accept incompetence and lack of planning as an explanation of our government’s actions, sometimes I think we also have to assume malice as well. And in this instance, there is plenty of evidence for it.


        • I agree that it’s easy to be suspicious… However, I have seen and talked with a lot of the key government players in all this – and it is worth remembering that some initiatives we are battling with don’t originate with Ministers, but with civil servants. On the whole my impression is that all of them mean well, but have no particular ‘world view’ of higher education and are not joining up the initiatives. Also, they are often affected by what appears to be a widespread popular suspicion of universities, really based on no evidence whatsoever; and it’s this we have to combat more effectively.

      • Perry Share Says:

        Over the last two decades the higher educational systems of Australia and the UK (to take two examples that I have some tenuous knowledge of) have been modernised. There appears to have been some logic behind the processes, in terms of trying to develop enhanced accountability, a recognition of social diversity, greater flexibility and an attempt to respond to the changing shape of the post-industrial economy. No doubt there have been horrendous blunders along the way, and you could look at the Research Assessment Exercise (RAE) in the UK as perhaps a process that caused as many problems as it solved. But at least there was/is a suggestion that the governments in those countries took higher education seriously and saw it as a key economic and social driver.

        In my dozen years back in Ireland (after a decade or so in Australia) I have never had any feeling that there is any such thing as a third level education policy here. There has been a lot of investment, and numerous disconnected ‘ initiatives’ that sometimes link up, and sometimes don’t. There are numerous gaps and a lot of duplication.

        Take the area of teaching and learning enhancement. At the moment there are active in this area: the National Digital Learning Repository [NDLR], the Learning Innovation Network [LIN], the All-Ireland Society for Higher Education [AISHE], the Irish Learning Technology Association [ILTA], the National Academy for the Integration of Research and Teaching and Learning [NAIRTL], the Educational Developers in Ireland Network [EDIN] … not to mention numerous other individual projects funded through the Strategic Innovation Fund [SIF] programme. Many of these initiatives are funded by the HEA and, unsurprisingly as Ireland is a small country, exactly the same people are involved in many of them. None of them, I would argue, has the critical mass to achieve much, despite the great efforts each has made with limited resources.

        This is symptomatic of a lack of vision at the political level and a failure of imagination at the bureaucratic level. The consequence is a system that is ill-equipped to compete on the international stage. There is massive duplication of resources (how many academic engineering departments are there are in Ireland? how many do we need?) and huge gaps (where is the nationally-resourced centre for addressing the needs of students with English as a second language?).

        The opportunity was there during the ‘boom’ to address some of these issues. That has now been lost. The government is now going to use people’s fear about their economic future, in conjunction with a deliberately stoked-up campaign against the public and education sectors, to push through a raft of rationalisations and changes to working conditions, combined with the reintroduction of tuition fees. It would be nice to think that all the review bodies listed are going to address the need to build a high quality education sector that can equip Ireland with the ability to respond to the huge economic, social and ecological challenges that lie ahead, but I’m not holding my breath.


        • Some very interesting comments, Perry. As it happens, I do believe that there was a coherent public strategy for higher education in the period from, say 1996 to 2001 or so. This was underpinned by the Universities Act 1997 (a genuinely imaginative piece of legislation), the establishment of PRTLI and the move towards much greater capital investment. The plot was however lost further into this decade. It has to be recovered.

      • Vincent Says:

        OK then, how is this for a coherent view.
        4m people, 7 universities and lord alone knows how many other groups bringing third level education. All with their own system pegged to the grades in the civil service.
        To look at them on a map, it gives the idea of a demented paintballer having very serious issues one way or the other and a bias to one underarm spot on the left.

        I would delight if each and every year the Nobel committees had a real headache and overall Irish generated study was the default. Where Russian, Mandarin, Persian and Spanish along with the other local European were included as a matter of expectation, not hens teeth. And when the Irish Universities stopped pretending that they were independent of each other and closed themselves into a fist.

        There is no such thing as anti-intellectualism in any realistic sense in Ireland, as there is in GB. These days everyone has in their direct family a Grad’. So how is it then that there is such iffyness about the Uni’s and Colleges, how is it that the Gov’ can with very little effort push you into a corner.
        Well you could help yourself by publishing clear financial books, with plain no bullshit numbers. That none can argue in a different way.
        Most by far, of the Grad’s you &co have had through your hands have very little clue beyond the direct dept’ of the hows of their own institution. And as grad elector members, all I can say is good luck to them getting your voting rights never mind information from same.
        So, reduce numbers by swallowing up the smaller and then act in concert. Give those, lets for the funsies say, 400,000 Grads clear transparent information.
        Then you will have the population behind you.
        Irish people are mostly very fair, but they hate being conned.


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