Today, Friday March 18, is my last full day in Ireland before I travel to Scotland where, on Monday, I shall be taking up my post as Principal and Vice-Chancellor of the Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen. I am leaving the Irish higher education system just as it is going through some rather serious convulsions, most notably (but not exclusively) caused by the daft ’employment control framework’. There are other challenges: the larger resourcing and funding question, the future shape of the sector, the autonomy of the universities, the degree to which rationalisation and restructuring is being pursued, the drive for a different model of employment terms and conditions for academic staff, the future of quality assurance in a new institutional structure yet to be properly established, and so forth.
I know that it is hard to be confident and optimistic in such a setting, but in fact many of the fundamentals of Irish higher education are still remarkably sound. Universities and colleges have managed to perform really well on much lower funding than what is available in our key competitor countries; Ireland’s academic research effort has grown exponentially over recent years and has contributed directly to the country’s growing success in attracting knowledge-intensive inward investment; the development of new intellectual property is growing; innovative new programmes of study are being rolled out; new technology-savvy learning methods are being pioneered. It is a resilient system, and in the end I believe it will overcome the obstacles. But those representing higher education need to be articulate and outspoken in defending its cause; not necessarily defending each and every thing that it does, because there is a need for some reform – but defending its importance and its potential for securing national recovery. Increasingly from a distance my own voice may not be so important, but for what it is worth this blog will continue to raise issues in Irish higher education, sometimes written by other contributors.
In moving to Scotland I shall encounter some similar issues and some that are different. I guess that funding issues are ones that come up everywhere right now, and Scotland certainly is no exception. Having nailed their colours to the mast of free higher education, the main political parties in Scotland are now grappling with how to make that affordable, and some rather curious ideas are now being mooted, such as the idea of charging EU students (and English ones, as is already the case), but not Scottish ones. This almost certainly cannot be dome within the terms of EU law. In the meantime funding cuts have placed strong pressures on the universities, some of whom are having to reduce costs significantly and with some dramatic consequences. The question of whether universities are autonomous or are bodies that need to reflect government priorities has also been a live issue. But overall there is still, I believe, a reasonable degree of self-confidence in the system and a willingness on the part of politicians to give the university sector a high priority.
As I move from Ireland to Scotland, I cannot help feeling that, both as countries and as higher education sectors, we have many common interests, opportunities and problems. I hope that I shall be able to witness and perhaps stimulate some new connections between both jurisdictions. There is much to be gained from that.