Incentivising completion

According to a report in the Irish Independent newspaper, Irish higher education institutions will, under the framework of reforms to be recommended in the strategic review presided over by Dr Colin Hunt, have to agree various targets on a regular basis with the Higher Education Authority, and that the latter will be entitled to impose financial penalties if any of these targets are not met. One of the likely targets will be an agreed student completion rate. More specifically, this is how the Independent describes the proposed framework:

‘Under a new funding system, colleges will receive reduced ‘core’ grants from the Exchequer. They will then be offered financial ‘incentives’ to meet targets in areas such as the retention of students, the rate of course completion, increasing access to college, teaching standards and research. If they fail to meet these targets, they will face financial penalties.’

In this blog we have already discussed the desirability or otherwise of a centrally coordinated planning process for higher education and the concept of performance targets. There is however a specific issue with student retention as a performance target. Any such target can easily be met by lowering the demands made by programmes of study, or moderating the severity of marking and assessment.

In any case, as nobody seems to have observed, there is already a distinct financial penalty for student non-completion. A student who drops out will cause an immediate financial loss, because his or her fees (as paid by the state) and their part of the recurrent grant disappears. In fact, student attrition creates severe financial problems for the institutions. If in addition to that the HEA were to impose a penalty and withdraw further funds, this will directly lead to a lowering of quality of provision for those students who remain, and I cannot even begin to understand how that would be a good idea.

All of this adds to my impression that we are facing a ‘reform’ agenda in Ireland that is largely misconceived and is based on the belief that what the system lacks is regulation and structure. In fact, what the system lacks is a sufficiently well developed position on pedagogy and scholarship, but that gap is likely to widen as a new system of tight controls emerges. These controls are likely to create major educational quality risks, but this is not being sufficiently articulated by the universities. There may be dangerous times ahead.

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9 Comments on “Incentivising completion”

  1. Al Says:

    My jaw dropped between my knees when I read that yesterday…
    I can imagine the literature that will explain how to keep standards and increase retention rates. This will be more talking from two orifices than both sides of the mouth….

  2. copernicus Says:

    Good morning Ferdinanand. A good post. Your comment: “There is however a specific issue with student retention as a performance target. Any such target can easily be met by lowering the demands made by programmes of study, or moderating the severity of marking and assessment” Perhaps that is what these czars want.

    In my experience in a few post-92s as external examiner, I have on one hand seen the university quality commissars (The “academic quality” section in post-92s is the only flourishing section these days, churning out paperwork asking academics to tick many boxes, draw many curves..) proclaiming about quality and standard and on the otherhand, another group of commissars from another section whispering to academics in a menacing way that good progression and retention are critical and can impact on the academics’ performance and contract retention. But fellow academics have said to me that they do not see a good pecentage of students in lectures and their wherabouts are not known to even the registries. Those that they see were given extra attention through tutorials, and despite diluting the rigour of assignments and exam questions (which I as an external examiner very often queried), they had no success. Progression and retention are then creatively done to make the graphs look good. We know the case of one university in London.

    The fact that many post-92 universities fill their first year degree quota with students with such weak entry background that they should not be in any university does not chime with the above university commissars.

  3. Jilly Says:

    Do they plan to apply this approach to medicine as well as other disciplines? If I graduate students who don’t really deserve it, they at least won’t kill anyone (well, not many, anyway)….

  4. Vincent Says:

    I think that this is but a smoke screen and the spectre hiding behind it is the massive pensions bill that is being generated as we speak. Further it will be the same with the HSE for whatever about the current 15 bil it will be as nothing to the future costs.
    This is why the Universities are running scared of the government. Why they will do nothing about the scandal of the points system and the leaving cert behind it.
    You are held as hostage, but a hostage that has bought into the governments mantras no matter what, in something similar to the capture that the financial regulators had with the banks.
    The reality here is that the entire system needs withdraw from the governments teat in entirety. For basically your meal is getting thinner and thinner, with you being pushed further and further back along the row.
    Next they will try to Gag you. Oops, what was it you wrote the other day.


    • Vincent, you wrote: ‘Why they will do nothing about the scandal of the points system and the leaving cert behind it.’

      That’s what I am hoping to raise with increasing emphasis over my remaining months in Ireland…

  5. colummccaffery Says:

    This was my contribution to another thread here: “The day that there is an incentive to pass someone or to award a a degree at any level, will be the day that credibility begins to slip away.” However, I do not share the views of those who seek complete autonomy; that way leads to other abuses. The difficulty is to design a system of management and control which is public and accountable.


    • Colum, I’d be interested in seeing you elaborate a little on this. What do you regard as ‘complete autonomy’, and what is bad about it, and what form of ‘accountability’ do you favour that isn’t simply a bureaucratic structure?


      • Ferdinand, I’d need considerable time to think before giving any kind of half-adequate response. What I had in mind was the freedom that ended up before the PAC. What prompted my comment was that I thought I detected a drift from the solid argument that incentivising “success” undermined credibility to a more general argument against state control and supervision generally.


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