In search of a higher education strategy

The Irish Times newspaper reports today that the steering group working on the Irish higher education strategic review is set to recommend ‘the return of student tuition charges as colleges face unprecedented financial pressures’. According to the newspaper, the group chaired by Dr Colin Hunt will also recommend the following:

‘Closer collaboration between all third-level colleges with the development of clusters specialising in a smaller number of disciplines: an expanded role for the HEA in managing the sector and linking spending to national objectives and a new workload management process where the working hours of academic staff in both the universities and the institutes of technology (ITs) will be more closely monitored.’

In fact Colin Hunt spoke at the conference held in DCU last week, and in his address (in which he emphasised that he was not presenting an early précis of the report but was speaking on his own behalf) he raised a number of issues, including the lack of transparency in the universities’ workload allocations, the difficulty the Irish higher education system may face in absorbing a major increase in student numbers (from 160,000 today to an estimated 275,000 in 2030), the need to have Irish institutions with critical mass, and the desirability of diversity in the sources of funding.

My concern at the moment is that the issues that may form the subject of the recommendations of the report when it is published don’t necessarily address the major objective of having a higher education strategy for Ireland. The national strategy debate has tended to focus on operational matters rather than on a vision. So that as a country we don’t get bogged down in a debate on what are important but still secondary issues – such as workload allocations, and even funding – we need to formulate a concept of higher education that explains what we are trying to achieve as a country. A higher education strategy is not about filling various campuses with students and researchers or equipment; it is not about hours of work; and it is not even about resourcing. It is about what higher education can do to offer high value learning to students of all ages; how research should be conducted, and on what themes or subjects, and to what end. It is about what higher education institutions can or should do to support and assist our society and community to achieve its full potential and to secure prosperity, inclusiveness and a sense of collective self-respect. We cannot develop a framework for how colleges should be run unless we are already clear what higher purpose these colleges need to pursue.

Of course as a university President I care about funding, resources, staffing buildings, equipment, governance, inter-institutional relations and so forth. But they all take second place to the overall vision, which they must be equipped to implement. The strength of that vision will give life to the implementation of the overall recommendations of the report. It is my hope that the working group will ensure that the vision will be at the heart of the strategy.

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13 Comments on “In search of a higher education strategy”

  1. otto Says:

    “a new workload management process where the working hours of academic staff in both the universities and the institutes of technology (ITs) will be more closely monitored”

    This potentially sounds like a nightmare, and would require the creation of new staff positions to actually do the monitoring. in the name of evidence-based policy-making the report authors should be required to produce evidence to support the claim that great university systems in any part of the world have been created or supported by national workload management systems designed to “closely monitor” the working hours of academic staff. Nothing of the sort occurs in the United States, or even in individual universities in the US.

    • kevin denny Says:

      Short of some form of electronic tagging, I don’t see how our working hours can be “closely monitored”: presumably its “teaching hours” that they have in mind. The devil will indeed be in the detail but it may, with any luck, turn out to be something innocous whereby something has to be seen to be done or at least recommended. As you note, the disconnect with best practice is glaring.

  2. iainmacl Says:

    Ferdinand, you’re not really surprised are you? How could such a group, set up at a time of economic collapse (headed by a banker and govt financial advisor) possibly develop the more philosophical, long-term vision you long for? That’s not what they were expected to do by Mr O’Keeffe, I’m sure, nor is it something that governments bother themselves with as they struggle to get by. That needs a broader national conversation.

    I’ll let you know if the UK’s (supposedly – ie a bit fixated on one of those countries only) HEA has any ideas emerging from its annual conference which I am currently attending…

    Still I’m sure the Galway Symposium is nurturing such thoughts from the grassroots up…..;-)

  3. Al Says:

    I suppose the vision is the Innovation Knowledge Economy
    (IKE). Politicians regularly refer to IKE as a friend that they want in their lives.
    Consequent to this, to be friends with IKE everyone needs to have third level qualifications.

    However, IKE is being used to distract from these issues.
    We have had a long term problem with unemployment. This has been released through the decades with emigration.
    But this isnt a proper solution for the present day.

    Education is being pushed as a solution, but is it?

    Are there too many people going onto third level?

    One way to answer this would be fees, where if people saw a return on the investment they would grasp the oppurtunity. What would third level participation levels be? However this would have other side effects.

    So with regard to the vision, are there too many people going on to third level?
    If so, what are the alternatives?

    • wendymr Says:

      One way to answer this would be fees, where if people saw a return on the investment they would grasp the oppurtunity.

      The only way that would work would be through the wide availability of reliable labour market information. Unfortunately, there are still people who believe that the higher the cost of something the better it must be; and there are unscrupulous salespeople who will market their expensive product as so much ‘better’ than the free or lower-cost product.

      My example here is private career colleges in Ontario, where diploma programmes cost upwards of twice as much as a similar programme at a community college. They’re marketed as ‘fast-track’, meaning that students complete in 8-10 months, whereas the community college diploma is two years. What the private colleges do not tell intending students is that frequently their programmes are not recognised, either by employers or by regulatory bodies. So students pay $13,000, complete their programme, and then discover that no employer thinks it’s worth the paper it’s written on. Even worse, sometimes there are no jobs in the field anyway as the labour market is saturated – but again applicants aren’t told this. Yes, we can certainly say that people should do their research beforehand, and as an employment counsellor I encourage and help with that as much as I can, but not everyone knows how to do that sort of research.

      What are the alternatives to university education? Skilled trades and apprenticeships, for one; not only are those trades badly needed, but not everyone is cut out for academic learning anyway. The completion of an apprenticeship (anything between 3-5 years) deserves to be seen as equal in standing to other post-secondary education. Certainly, the pay is often equal to a graduate salary, depending on what the graduate ends up doing!

      • Al Says:

        Trade/Craft education became heavily overloaded in the construction bubble. It has left alot of new trades/crafts people with little to no work oppurtunity.

        What is worse is that it has left many apprentices in limbo, without the work required to complete their apprenticeships. It has been a rotten deal for these people.

        While we were over subscribed with the construction trades we also had a comparative decline in some of the manufacturing trades.

        The point I am labouring to make is that the issue isnt between which type of education is best for which type of person.

        It should be between work and education where greater benefit would be had with things like flood relief, sewerage works, school buildings, urban regeneration, etc etc.

        Work versus Education
        Now theres a debate!


  4. This committee has no chance whatsoever of implementing the vision you eloquently describe in the passage below:

    “A higher education strategy is not about filling various campuses with students and researchers or equipment; it is not about hours of work; and it is not even about resourcing. It is about what higher education can do to offer high value learning to students of all ages; how research should be conducted, and on what themes or subjects, and to what end. It is about what higher education institutions can or should do to support and assist our society and community to achieve its full potential and to secure prosperity, inclusiveness and a sense of collective self-respect. We cannot develop a framework for how colleges should be run unless we are already clear what higher purpose these colleges need to pursue.”

    *That’s* what we should be doing, having this kind of consideration, this kind of debate, this kind of exchange of new ideas about what we want our educational system to look like, and do, for our society.

    The recommendations of the committee will rely on crude managerialism and spin, and, I’m sorry to say, I predict that 99% of the good ideas any committee like this generates in the process of meetings won’t be implemented.

    Actually, do we really need the committee to meet? Can’t we just expand that paragraph to 100 pages via some waffle algorithm, cut the committee their cheques, and let them spend more time with their families? Wouldn’t that be a direct improvement for everyone?

    Like most of these things, the notion of a workload model to direct employee behaviour by changing incentives seems like a good one, but the nitty gritty really comes down to weighting: 30% on teaching, 40% on research, 20% on administration and 10% on community service? Measured how? A form, filled by a head of department, probably.

    Good luck with that. What happens when the weights change? What happens when you have a Paul Samuelson? You’re going to tell him he needs to spend 20% of his time in admin instead of pumping out world class papers? Really? You’re going to honestly sanction a permanent member of staff for *not* doing research? How? No increments? No conference money? Public flogging? Welcome to union-ville. This is going to be another form-filling policy failure. The end.

    There is already a workload model in place in the one area it matters: promotion. In UL our promotions are based on Research, Teaching, and Community Service, in varying proportions as you move up the grades. The model exists, everyone understands they have to fill in boxes based on evidence of their behaviour, and they do. The end.

    In the best universities in the world, the word is: research. Do your best at it, talk to you during the tenure review. There are issues with that, too, as Ernie has shown us, but we’ll have more mediocrity, more form-filling, more jobs for useless form-counters, and less actual research being done.

    That said, I’m all for tagging Kevin Denny as a test case, btw.

  5. wrangler Says:

    Is the resistance to talking about “vision” political? As an American assistant professor in a fairly conservative state, I can identify an increasing politicalization of curriculum. For those unaware, recent dealings in the state of Texas show just how political curriculum in the post-Lyotard-etc university (the one without meta-narratives) might become. Those were at the secondary level, but I hope it alerts us to a greater need to attend to the social dimensions of higher education. Are there similar tensions in Ireland?

    • Jilly Says:

      Yes and no, Wrangler. There certainly aren’t the kind of tensions of the kind you’re outlining in Texas: there isn’t a religious and/or national right-wing in Ireland of the kind there is in the US. There are undoubtedly a few cranks here and there, but they would barely fill a village hall, and are nowhere near the corridors of power (thankfully).

      What we have instead is an ever-increasing managerialism in education as in other areas of state provision (healthcare, for example), which at its best is pure bean-counting and at its worst is deeply ideological in its emphasis on control and quite deliberate stifling of ideas (nasty intellectual things, ideas) or dissent.

      • Vincent Says:

        Sorry Jilly but the ultra-Christian stance is so ubiquitous in Ireland that it is almost impossible to treat Irish history as anything other than a religious history, even today. Even those who call themselves Atheist are atheist with a knowledge of religion well beyond many a staunch Christian in Texas.

        On your second point about healthcare. The Citizen is passing to the medical community about 25 billion-ish each and every year. About 17 of that directly from the exchequer. This figure is just nuts. Mind you if you put a sweetshop before a bunch of greedy kids you cannot blame them if they gorge themselves.

  6. wrangler Says:

    Ah, thanks Jilly. “Accountability” has become a buzz word at just about every level of American education lately. There’s been a dramatic increase in standardized testing. In some ways, this might be managerial. Its also tied to “customer service” in an academic-economic ecology that competes for butts in the seats.


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