Hunt: key principles of higher education strategy
Now that the Hunt report (National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030) has been formally published, a larger number of stakeholders and organisations have offered an initial view of its merits. It would be fair to say that some of the later evaluations have been more supportive. So for example, IBEC (the Irish Business and Employers Confederation) issued a statement saying it ‘welcomed the broad direction for change set out in the National Strategy for Higher Education’. Labour Party Education spokesperson Ruairi Quinn expressed doubts about the financing and funding elements of the report, but otherwise broadly welcomed the recommendations. Perhaps most significantly, the Irish Universities Association (IUA) has issued a statement concluding with the following:
‘The Strategy Report brings a much needed conceptual and strategic perspective to the development of our system overall. As the report acknowledges, implementation can only happen through engagement and we look forward to working with government to deliver this.’
So does the Hunt report indeed inject, in the IUA’s words, a ‘conceptual and strategic perspective’? And if so, what is it? In my previous analysis (at the time when the Irish Times had released a draft version of the report) I had suggested that the vision of the report was of a more tightly controlled and centrally managed higher education system. Would the universities want to welcome that? Maybe I was wrong in my reading of the report?
Let us go back, as I did the first time, to the ‘high level objectives’ set out in the report (now on page 27), since one might expect these to reflect the group’s vision. There are six of them, and I am going to suggest that each one contains two key adjectives that explain the principle identified by the group for the relevant objective. Seen in this way, the twelve key words are (1) ‘excellent’ and ‘accessible’; (2) ‘relevant’ and ‘responsive’; (3) ‘international’ and ‘aligned’; (4) ‘autonomous’ and ‘accountable’; (5) ‘coherent’ and ‘inter-related’; (6) ‘national’ and ‘sustainable’.
As one might have expected, many commentators and the media have latched on to the funding and student contribution elements of the report, but I’ll buck the trend and say that these don’t matter at all, except to the extent that this is one more report (amongst dozens) that agrees that Irish higher education is under-funded. We knew that, and whether anyone does anything about it won’t depend on Hunt, but will be dictated by political considerations after the election. In terms of what actually happens on the financial and resourcing side, Hunt doesn’t matter one bit. Even the Tánaiste, when interviewed on RTE, suggested that this was an issue for further analysis based on the earlier plans drawn up a year or two ago by then Minister for Education Batt O’Keeffe.
So if it’s not about fees, what is it about? Well, going back to the key words, and taking away the ones that are really just waffle (like ‘excellent’ and ‘international’), you are left with a very clear picture: Hunt is about providing a new focused direction for higher education. That could be good or bad, depending on what it means in more detail and how it is implemented. Yesterday’s buzzword amongst those broadly welcoming Hunt was ‘accountable’, also one of our key words here. This in turn is based on the idea that higher education has been spending money without adequately explaining what it has been doing with it, and with the added suggestion that it has been wasteful and inefficient, and that it has tolerated under-performance. Ruairi Quinn, in another interview, tellingly used the word ‘inputs’ – that there needed to be greater control over the resources and activities of universities and colleges. That chimes totally with the Hunt report, which is in fact all about inputs, and hardly about impact or outputs.
And yet, when there is some reference in passing to outputs, it seems to tell a rather positive story; for example, this passage (page 29):
‘The Irish higher education system has served Irish society well in recent decades, as it responded to changes in the social, economic and cultural environment. It has provided society with the knowledge and skills needed to negotiate the changing global landscape, where new understandings, new challenges and new technologies are daily changing the realities we face and our relationships with the world and it has opened new opportunities for personal development and advancement to a generation of citizens.The high-calibre graduates produced by the higher education system have been critical to the development of high-technology indigenous industry and to the attraction of very substantial foreign direct investment into the country, resulting in the creation of high-quality, well-paid employment, economic growth, and a higher standard of living.’
Oddly, this apparent hymn to Irish higher education is followed by the assertion that ‘what has served us well in the past will not serve us well in the future without significant change.’ And the reason for that? ‘Our success in the recent past was based on the application of knowledge that was developed elsewhere. In the years ahead, we will increasingly have to be knowledge creators ourselves.’ Really? What evidence is there for that? In the distant past, absolutely; but in the ‘recent past’ Irish universities have developed hugely successful research partnerships and innovative teaching programmes that have led rather than followed.
What am I concluding? The Hunt group, for whatever reasons, declined to commission its own research, so its work has been based on the submissions made to it and whatever occurred to its members. From what we can now read, it seems to have persuaded itself that there is a problem with higher education, and that this problem is all about its structural looseness and its uncontrolled development. Apart from assertions like the one I have just quoted, it offers no actual evidence for this; but it does offer a proposed bells-and-whistles solution that will make strategy a national rather than institutional concern. Creativity in knowledge development will be the task of a national body, and the institutions will be the agencies to which it contracts out the implementation. OK, that’s a tendentious way of putting it, but I think it’s close to the mark.
I need to balance what I have written here. I am not suggesting that everything in Hunt is all bad. The report is worth reading carefully, and it contains sensible and worthwhile suggestions in a number of contexts. Its concern for a more rational system taking account of national needs is not misplaced, even if I think its remedy is quite wrong. Its call for reform in structures and actions is not unreasonable. But its work is set in a context where politicians, officials and commentators, unmolested by facts or evidence, had been shouting about under-performance and inefficiency, and you cannot quite help feeling that this was taken as the starting point on which the detailed work was then based, rather than the other way round.
Now that it’s there, I don’t think we should just dismiss the Hunt Report. But we need to pick apart the bits that have substance and sense, and those that are misguided. But above all, we need to persuade our stakeholders that no national university system, ever, improved its performance by letting the state control it more. Higher educational excellence by centralised target setting? No, absolutely not. If I were wrong in that, the Soviet Union would be even today be wowing the world with the triumphs of its five-year plans. So let us look constructively at what Hunt says, and let us accept that further change and reform – even radical change and reform – is necessary. Let us agree that we need to be accountable, and that we need to be able to demonstrate (as sometimes we are not) that the outputs of our system are really excellent. But let us not conclude that this can be done by perfecting new centralised control mechanisms.
PS. Over the next week I shall also focus on one or two recommendations made in the Hunt Report which I believe are sensible and should be implemented.