Higher education’s strategic needs

According to today’s report in the Irish Times, the strategic review report group chaired by Dr Colin Hunt will suggest that Ireland’s higher education system needs another €500 million annually to cope with an increase in student numbers derived from increased demand and a government desire to raise higher education participation levels further. However, even if the government were to accept this and had the resources to pay it, that would merely fund additional numbers at the same rate as currently applies to the existing cohort. While such funding may seem the best that could be on offer given the current state of the public finances, we have to realise that it is completely inadequate as a basis for securing an internationally competitive university system; to achieve that we would need another 30 per cent or so more.

While for all sorts of reasons it is clearly difficult for this to gain wide acceptance, for the sake of this country’s future we really do need to grasp the fact that there won’t be enough public money to support a high quality higher education system. This either means that we should now accept that Ireland will have a much lower quality system that will not really be able to support our ambitions to be a ‘smart’ knowledge economy, or we need to look again at how we fund it all. In that sense the Hunt report’s conclusion about student contributions must be right.

But there is a bigger issue here. All around us the traditional understanding, principles and assumptions of higher education are being taken apart, whether as a result of economic developments, changes in public attitudes, government policies or new knowledge insights. I doubt that in 10 years time the global higher education landscape will look exactly like it does today. In this setting a strategic review of higher education needs to ask some fundamental questions about the nature of education, methods of learning, the scope and nature of research, and the role of universities and colleges in society and in the economy. Funding is important, and structures are also in some way, but they should flow from our understanding of how higher education should change. It is this kind of analysis I would have wanted to see as the basis for recommendations for change, and at least based on what we have seen so far that seems to me to be missing. I hope there will be more of this in the report when eventually it is published.

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2 Comments on “Higher education’s strategic needs”

  1. iainmacl Says:

    Why should it just be higher education that needs to undergo fundamental change in the period ahead? Why not also the prevailing model of the economy which is more and more being exposed as failing to meet social and environmental needs in the 21st century? There were some more profoundly challenging questions about the nature of modern market capitalism and its profound unsustainability being asked at the time of the banking crisis, but now things are settling back to the market model again, having been shored up by taxpayers and debt passed onto future generations. If we are looking at fundamental questions on the longer timescales then that needs to be explored too and not merely consigned as ‘unrealistic’. There are serious weaknesses in the current models of economic growth and the ‘market’ which are the root cause of many of the issues being faced in education, health and the environment. Rather than HE not being ‘fit for purpose’ in this so-called knowledge economy, maybe its the knowledge economy that’s not fit for purpose for the needs of society?

    • Iain, I’m not wholly sure what you are suggesting here. Do you mean that the Hunt group should have made recommendations on the reform of the economy? Surely that wasn’t their remit… Or are you saying that in the absence of economic reform we shouldn’t ask searching questions about higher education? Which doesn’t seem obviously right to me…

      Or am I misunderstanding your point?

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