The issues for 2010

Probably not many people will look back on 2009 with any great sense of affection. It was a very difficult year, with many losing their jobs and with financial and economic uncertainty affecting almost everyone. In Ireland, the concept of social partnership (which has defined economic development for over 20 years) appears to have come to an end, and indeed industrial unrest (almost totally forgotten for the past two decades) made an admittedly rather spluttering re-appearance. In higher education, universities came under significant pressure, both as part of what is thought to be the public sector and in its own right. A higher education strategy is being formulated by a special working group, but we know that one of the steers this group is getting from the government and its agencies is that there should be closer control of universities and colleges. The Minister for Education announced a ‘forensic audit’ of third level finances, with the apparent sub-text being that the institutions were not spending their money wisely or efficiently.

As we go into 2010, there is a curious feeling that all the cards in the game have been swept from the table and that we must expect something totally new, thought we don’t right now know what that will be. On the other hand, the excitement and near panic of the past year may be subsiding, and there is at least the prospect of some greater economic stability.

So from a higher education perspective, what are the issues that need to be resolved this year? Here is my list – and anyone else’s alternatives would be of great interest to me.

• Will Irish higher education undergo a significant restructuring? Will the UCD-TCD ‘Innovation Alliance’ be followed by other inter-institutional arrangements? Well, the answer to that is yes, but what form will these arrangements take, and will they matter in practice?
• Is the debate on tuition fees dead, or will it re-emerge this year? Actually, the answer to this is also yes, but it may be in a broader context. What arguments should universities be putting forward?
• Will the institutes of technology make progress with their plans for a national technological university? I suspect not, but this should perhaps be a question for a wider and more public debate.
• How will the Irish universities fare in next autumn’s global rankings? Maybe that seems a trivial question to some, but actually quite a lot of things are affected by the league tables, and funding cuts may make it difficult to sustain our positions.
• Will the constraints on staffing, recruitment and promotions be relaxed? This is critical, as they are having a major effect on morale.
• Will the state keep its nerve on research funding and continue the plans elaborated in the last National Development Plan and the Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation?
• Will student feedback become a more routine method of assessing teaching quality?
• Will blogs and social networking spread further as tools in higher education?

One way or another, this will be an interesting year, which could be crisis-ridden or which could produce genuine new thinking and innovation. I plan to be optimistic. In any case, my own direct stake in all of this may be different from mid-July onwards…

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2 Comments on “The issues for 2010”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    One question that we should not forget is: what is going to happen to our graduates? Significant numbers are unemployed or are emigrating. The policy response, it seems to me, is along the lines of a “rising tide lifts all boats so lets wait for the tide”. This ignores the considerable damage that is done by prolonged unemployment at the start of a young person’s career.

    A second question that I don’t think you really touched on is how will universities respond to fiscal contraction? Arguably there is a fair bit of waste in the sector – everyone has their own favourite example- and if the universities are to credibly argue for continued support they have to do their own belt-tightening too. Not giving tea & biscuits to visitors, as we were implored to do, was a pretty unconvincing gesture.

  2. Despite all the fuss about the UCD-TCD innovation alliance, I can’t see it having any effect at all. Does anyone know of how/if it is working out in practice? I would love to read a review of how it is working.

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