Hunt report: towards a national strategy?
Thanks to the Irish Times, we now have a full draft of the Hunt Report (National Strategy for Higher Education) in the public domain. And we know one or two other interesting things. According to the Times, the government’s intention was to publish the report next Tuesday (an event perhaps now destined to be something of an anti-climax); but we also know, from the letter by Colin Hunt to the Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister, and Minister for Education and Skills) copied in the report, that the draft version was submitted to the government on August 9, 2010, a full five months ago. What on earth has been going on since then, and why has it taken so long to decide to publish?
Over the next few days, it will perhaps be worthwhile looking at one or two chapters of the report and the associated recommendations. But at the outset it is always useful to look for the key principles, or the big idea, under-pinning the vision of the document. In fact, there is a page in the report with the heading ‘The Vision for Higher Education in Ireland’ (page 15). One could read this and conclude that there is no specific vision other than that everything in higher education should be Very Good; but that would be a mistake. Those who have suggested that there is no vision in this document are, I believe, wrong. There is a vision. But it is not one to which I would easily subscribe.
The key element of the Hunt group’s vision consists of the belief that higher education works best when it works to as coordinated agenda. This is contained in the final ‘high level objective’ of the report:
‘The policy framework for higher education will make national expectations clear. The objectives and operations of the institutions and those of the funding and quality agencies will be mutually aligned, and will be underpinned by a sustainable funding model and clearly defined structures for system governance and accountability.’
A little further on the report states that the key issues to be addressed in higher education reform are ‘system structure, flexibility and resourcing’. In other words, the major idea in the report is that there should be a centrally determined national strategy for higher education, and a set of structures to ensure that this gets implemented by the higher education institutions. The report also emphasises institutional autonomy, and this might seem a little tricky in the light of the main objective, until you get to see what the authors think autonomy actually means. Here’s a key passage in chapter 7:
‘There is a balance between autonomy and accountability. At the heart of this strategy is the recognition that a diverse range of strong, autonomous institutions is essential if the overall system is to respond effectively to evolving and unpredictable societal needs. Funding and operational autonomy must, however, be matched by a corresponding level of accountability for performance against clearly articulated expectations. This requires well-developed structures to enable national priorities to be identified and communicated, as well as strong mechanisms for ongoing review and evaluation of performance at system and institutional levels. The latter requires the introduction of a strategic dialogue between institutions and the State.’
The most important word in the above extract is the adjective ‘operational’, qualifying ‘autonomy’. What the group believes is that the determination of a strategic vision is a matter for the state and its agencies, and is not part of the toolkit of institutional autonomy. What, in their view, makes the institutions ‘autonomous’ is not strategic choice, but their freedom to take operational decisions in implementing the national strategy. It is managerial freedom rather than strategic autonomy. Indeed this view was confirmed to me at a meeting I attended as university president with the group, at which my suggestion that university autonomy implied a right to determine the strategic vision was met with considerable surprise by members of the Hunt group.
This, therefore, is the ‘big idea’ of the report. It is the view that a small country like Ireland cannot afford to have a diversity of uncontrolled institutional missions. In many ways this is an understandable view, particularly when you bear in mind the composition of the Hunt group. If scarce resources are to be spent, in increasing amounts, on higher education, then the money should be focused on national objectives. In that view it might make sense to let the government determine a national strategy and to task a strong national agency – the Higher Education Authority – with the implementation of that strategy through negotiations with the individual universities and colleges. The latter then become agencies themselves, part of a wider national framework.
The flaw in this vision is that it doesn’t work. Universities are at their most innovative and creative when they are allowed to pursue their own vision. So for example, the current German government is busily changing the post-War framework of universities as coordinated government agencies and giving them higher levels of strategic autonomy exactly because the ‘agency’ model has made them under-perform in global terms. American universities became the global leaders they now are from the moment that they were allowed to escape from bureaucratic controls. There is no evidence from anywhere that a centralised coordination of institutional strategies creates wider benefits for society.
On the other hand, there is a strong case for greater focus in a small country like Ireland, and it is not unreasonable to allow some public funding to be used to secure that. However, to make that work the model would have to be much more collaborative rather than directive.
The Hunt report is based on the view that what Ireland lacks in its higher education system is central planning. This, when you read through the details of the report, is its big idea. It confuses ‘autonomy’ with the devolution of managerial powers, and in the process under-estimates the significance of universities as creative knowledge organisations with the capacity to drive strategy rather than just follow it. The report recognises the importance of Ireland’s higher education system and the significance of coordination, but heads for the default option of bureaucratisation. In this sense it represents a missed opportunity, and also introduces a major risk into the system.
The Hunt report – which I had hoped might be subjected to some more discussion and consultation (and research) before publication – is now there and we must engage with it. It may of course not survive the coming political changes. But a wise approach by the higher education system would be to accept some of the broader concerns it expresses, but to push for a different solution.