The trials and tribulations of the Irish HE strategic review
At some point – a very long time ago as it now seems – I attended a meeting, together with all the university presidents in Ireland, to which we had been invited by the higher education strategic review working group chaired by Dr Colin Hunt. I think it must have been the autumn of last year. It was a very constructive and positive occasion, and Dr Hunt himself seemed sympathetic to our cause, and the comments he made about the direction of the group’s thinking made me feel cautiously optimistic as I left the meeting. Back then I was expecting the report to be issued, at the latest, early in 2010.
But now it is late in 2010, and we have no published report. I understand that the report is currently with the government, and that it is likely to be published shortly. And of course we have had reports of leaks and summaries of the content, and none of it fills me with confidence. The bit that worries me most is that, if the reports are to be believed, the group will recommend a centrally coordinated higher education strategy which individual universities will then be required to implement. If this turns out to be correct, it will have huge implications for institutional autonomy and will fundamentally change the nature of the Irish higher education system and turn it into a centrally steered bureaucracy. It may not turn out quite that way, but at the moment that is the risk we face.
In the meantime, the Hunt report has stepped on to an international stage, with a major article by Hannah Fearn on the process, the possible outcomes and some critique in this week’s issue of Times Higher Education. The article makes it clear that some of the recommendations will be resisted if they emerge in the form now expected, and that the credibility of the report is in any case undermined by the process of the review and the membership of the group itself. The Times Higher article, and the nature of the comments quoted (and not just from me), will now make it very difficult for the report to be influential in changing the system.
The key problems with this process have been the skewed membership of the group (dominated by civil servants), the eccentric way in which submissions were sought (discouraging any real analysis), the failure of the group to commission even a singly piece of research in order to ensure that any recommendations could be robustly evidence-based, the absence of any international advice or input, and the delays in completing and publishing the outputs.
I have suggested previously (and I remain of this view for now) that this process has not worked, and that it would be better to take it back to the drawing board so that the group can be widened, the process made more effective, and proper evidence from Ireland and overseas can be assembled. It might be unfortunate if this process has to be delayed further, but that is better than one that is completed without the necessary work having been done and with question marks hanging over the quality of the output.