A concordat for higher education?
The British Parliament’s Innovation, Universities, Science and Skills Committee recently produced a report which, at least in some respects, makes for interesting reading. The report is the outcome of an inquiry by the committee into the student experience at British universities, set against practice in other countries. However, it is more broadly based than that objective might lead one to expect, and in fact the committee touch in virtually every aspect of higher education and ask a number of questions. The committee took evidence from a huge array of stakeholders, and the report attempts to distil the answers, and the reactions to these answers, into a coherent set of observations and recommendations. I am not sure whether this has worked – in the sense that I don’t think this amounts to a document that could be used as a reference work for higher education. But it does show how the system looks when one has set it against a set of data and anecdotal observations; and although you mightn’t think so, that has some value. I may come back to aspects of it over time.
For today, I want to focus on one set of observations, on institutional autonomy. In fact, the committee start this section (para. 237) by saying that they would like to look at the related topic of academic freedom, but would leave that for another time, and end it by suggesting that the funding council, the higher education sector and student bodies should draw up what they call a ‘concordat’ (i.e. a formal agreement), which would have the purpose of ‘defining those areas over which universities have autonomy, including a definition of academic freedom and, on the other side, those areas where the Government, acting on behalf of the taxpayer, can reasonably and legitimately lay down requirements or intervene.’
The committee had come to the view that institutional ‘autonomy’ had become hard to identify because everyone has a different understanding of what it might mean and what effect it should have. This is equally true in Ireland, and in fact it may all become more complex still as regulatory pressures increase and budgets reduce (but come with ever more strings attached). Right now we have an ongoing strategic review of higher education, and it might be appropriate for the group addressing this review to consider a similar approach, so that the basis on which universities operate and the extent to which they can decide their own affairs or have them determined by regulation can be clarified. Continuing in the current mists of ambiguity is almost certainly not a good idea.