The view from the HEA

Guest blog by Tom Boland
Chief Executive of the Higher Education Authority

I feel a certain trepidation as I begin my maiden voyage in the blogosphere.  It’s not as if I go boldly where no man has gone before, but I must at least go boldly.  I’ve avoided this medium of communication so far basically because there are so many others that do the job just fine for me.  But Professor von Prondzynski has “smoked me out” with his recent comments on university mergers – “Mergermania”.

Ferdinand was commenting on my reported remarks in the Irish Independent on 29 April.  The point I had sought to make in a speech to a conference on “Transforming Public Services” was that in higher education we face very considerable challenges, including the combined challenges of growing levels of participation of school leavers, together with meeting the skills needs of those already in the workforce at a time of significant resource constraints. We cannot meet these challenges and continue to have a high quality higher education system unless we do things very differently.

Part of that different approach, in my view, involves the higher education institutions, especially the universities and the institutes of technology, working together in a more co-ordinated and coherent system of higher education, where each contributes according to its strengths to achieving national (as well as institutional) objectives.  Universities cannot seek to be all things to all comers – a point which Ferdinand appears to accept in his blog posted May 9 (Philosophical questions).  Alliances and collaborations in areas such as programme development and delivery, joint appointments, research and knowledge transfer, that are customised to fit particular purposes, should be part of that new approach.  Such arrangements may over time lead to closer union of the institutions concerned where this makes sense from an institutional and national perspective.  Why not?  The issue is not so much that we need universities of a particular size but that it is difficult to see how we can resource the present structure and ensure quality outcomes with the current fragmented system of stand alone institutions.  The cross institutional collaboration or merger of departments, schools and, in time, even whole institutions is one way towards stronger, better resourced institutions and a better service to students.

While I’m in this space I would like to comment on an unrelated matter, prompted by the up-coming retirement of my host on this blog, Professor von Prondzynski.  For a variety of reasons trust has been lost by a significant number of people in a wide range of important institutions – politics, the broader public service, the Catholic Church, bankers – the list goes on.  Such a widespread loss of confidence is probably unprecedented, and certainly very unhealthy for our society.  On the other hand, our higher education system continues to enjoy a high level of confidence for its capacity to deliver what people need in their lives and careers.  In a situation of a general loss of trust, could this confidence be put to wider public service? It is noteworthy that our academic leaders are not generally part of the public discourse on matters that affect our society and economy.  Individual academics are of course often to be found in the media commenting on their special area of expertise.  But what of the role of university presidents as thought leaders and commentators in our society – on topics other than higher education?  In response to this question some time ago a president replied to me, only half facetiously, that they are kept too busy by the state in trying to make ends meet.  And I acknowledge some truth in that.  But it’s not the full story! I believe that the leaders of higher education have the capacity to make a contribution to Irish society and to the debate about our future beyond their already significant contribution to higher education itself.

President von Prondzynski, during his term as President in DCU, has been an exception to the general rule, having acquired and retained a high visibility as a university leader with views to express, who is prepared to express them. Even if one does not always agree with his opinions his voice, at least from his present perspective, will be missed.

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11 Comments on “The view from the HEA”

  1. Vincent Says:

    The education system is not like the medical one where the outcomes depend very much on the ‘through-put’ of sick people a la the cancer situation. No, the very best in education is the one on one tutor. And the further away from that ideal you get the less quality you can get.
    Now the merger of the Colleges and the IoT’s is to be applauded for economies of scale can be achieved in the areas that are not in contact with the student, basically the areas the service charge targets. That you can cram in more and more is not the point, for all you will produce is ready-made suits of some manmade fiber when what is needed and are looking is high quality West Coast tweed.
    You need to halt the thinking where handing Irish people the current day version of a canal building navvies shovel or the seaweed cutting reaping hook and begin laying the bricks of the mindset where the Irish are the commissioners, designers and owners.

  2. Perry Share Says:

    He’s not giving much away here, is he?

    • Well, I suppose Tom is not giving away any state secrets. But it is useful to get a perspective from the HEA. It’s very hard to read the politicians right now, but we do have a very open relationship with the HEA, and while their perspective might not always be my perspective, I think they do support the universities, and Tom Boland has been a strong advocate.

  3. Cormac Says:

    Hello Tom, interesting an informative post and I certainly agree with you on Ferdinand’s participation in public debate.

    Re ‘mergermania’, as you point out, universities cannot seek to be all things to all comers. In that case, it’s surprising to hear hints of proposed mergers between universities, and between IoTs such as WIT and CIT. Would it not make more sense to merge a given IoT with a neighbouring university, i.e. merge the traditional universities with the slightly more practical IoTs, thus catering for all types of students? Has there been any discussion of this?

  4. Conor Galvin Says:

    Great post. Lots to think about. Though I’d have to wonder a little about the embedded assumption that doing ‘things very differently’ automatically means ‘better’. Or that ‘cross institutional collaboration or merger of departments, schools and, in time, even whole institutions’ is anything like a promising way towards ‘stronger, better resourced institutions and a better service to students’. Show me even a scrap of serious, joined up thinking / policy planning from the global setting that suggests credibly that this is so, and I’m open to a conversation. But – with respect to Tom’s own openness to a debate as shown above – all we seem to get when these things are ‘discussed’ are untested and even worse formulaic intonations of the greyest kind; bigger is better, savings on scale, it’s all too fragmented…

    I know it’s been said here before but massive numbers mean nothing. CalTech’s graduating class is around 200 students annually. MIT has about 4000 undergrads, Stanford 6500 more or less. You could lose the lot of them at Belfield or indeed within the well-kept (and paid parking) confines of DCU!

    Why on earth is this notion of merger such a draw?

    • I agree, Conor, that the evidence in support of mergers is quite doubtful. I read Tom’s post as stepping away a little from that position, and looking instead at structured collaboration.

  5. Jilly Says:

    I’d be very keen to see Tom elaborate on one of his other statements as reported in the Independent the other day – that universities need to move away from ‘locking up’ their teaching facilities during the summer.

    Whilst I doubt that anyone would resist a fruitful way to use those facilities (in the form of buildings, labs and the technology they contain) during the summer, I was extremely curious as to who Tom thought would be teaching/supervising this usage.

    The academic year of undergraduate teaching and examining finishes (typically) in late June, but with the advent of extensive taught postgraduate degrees, more examining begins again in late August as MA final dissertations are submitted and marked. By the time that’s done in early September, we’re preparing for the undergraduates to return again for the new academic year. This leaves a maximum of 5-6 weeks of the summer during which academic staff generally have to take their entire annual leave (because contrary to popular belief, we actually have very inflexible leave arrangements and certainly can’t go on holiday between September-July), as well as do that little thing, research. So in short, while it may well be possible to use the university infrastructure during the summer months, that cannot possibly be overseen by the current academic staff. I’d be extremely interested to hear Tom’s elaborations on this point – or perhaps he was misreported?

    • iainmacl Says:

      It may well be a reference to other institutions of course Jilly. Many university courses now are full year length with project work taking place in labs in the summer months, sharing facilities with research students, etc. And there are also conferences and summer schools, as well as this being the only time in the calendar in which equipment maintenance and replacement can take place (especially the case in computer labs, for example, where discs are re-imaged, machines repaired/upgraded).

    • It is an interesting topic not currently discussed properly. I also was extremely curious , but as to who shall be taught.

  6. kevin denny Says:

    While Tom Boland’s piece is certainly interesting and nuanced, I would take issue with his contention that its impossible to resource the structure within the current “fragmented” system. “Fragmented” sounds bad but exactly why? For the universities we have a small number of institutions competing with each, not out of line with other countries. Why would de-fragmenting them lead to a better outcome? The implicit assumption is that there are some economies of scale or scope presumably due to fixed costs.
    It would be nice to know what exactly he has in mind: is the idea that it might be better to have a Dublin philosophy department rather than ones in UCD and TCD? Or is it savings from administration like on HR or computing? I am doubtful if there are such big savings, in the absence of any serious evidence.
    And if mergers were to occur while retaining existing campuses then you end up with all sorts of coordination costs. Remember if you merge two banks you can (relatively) easily lower your costs by getting rid of people. Now try doing that in the public sector.
    Of course collaboration may be a good idea but its essential that its not forced. Shotgun weddings are a recipe for disaster.

  7. tom cosgrove Says:

    Tom Boland says:
    ‘Alliances and collaborations in areas such as programme development and delivery, …. that are customised to fit particular purposes, should be part of that new approach’

    I agree with Vincent that:
    The key moments are one-to-one though one tutor can mentor many students.

    I have only been in the Education system full time since last year though I have spent 30 years mentoring and learning from colleague Engineers and Architects.

    I believe that the day of the Lecture, as a system norm, is over. The web generation will no longer sit passivly listening to recitation. They are voting with their feet.

    The knowledge economy will emerge as a reality only when our Education system at all levels promotes the development of self-aware, reflective ,curious , grounded people. Technology alone will not save us. Knowledge is embodied in thinking people.

    I have noticed that reward systems within Third Level while not ignoring teaching and learning are heavily skewed towards technology based research.
    Behaviour for staff as for students is driven by the reward system.

    Promoting reflective practice for professional education is uncomfortable for some teachers whose own expert status is challenged.
    Reinvigouration of professional education from the world of practice is needed by mixing research and practice orientation, abandoning implicit hierarchies
    of respect (or disrespect).
    The world of practice in its turn, could do with an injection of the reflective spirit. A short skip through the stories of all the great Engineers reveals a rich reflective seam.

    How can the Education system promote grounded reflection as a core value?
    We have chosen PBL as one key element. Other approaches may be equally effective. The key is the
    value system: does the process communicate and promote concern for the students educational development and respect for the students experience?

    We find outside collaboration an essential
    ingredient. We hope the Education system will support all initiatives moving in the direction I have outlined.

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