Being competitive in higher education

In this blog I recently drew attention to comments made in University College Dublin by the new chair of the Higher Education Authority, Mr John Hennessy, on the topic of what universities should adopt from the private sector. The HEA has now drawn attention to his speech on their website, and it contains the following quote from the speech:

‘My experience in the private sector has taught me that it is absolutely imperative to be competitive. In the last decade, this has changed to be competitive in a global context. A concern I would have for the higher education sector is that there appears to be limited effort to devise and implement a strategy to identify and reward institutions, faculties and individuals that are doing best. We must reward excellence and differentiate between institutions in Higher Education. We must reward and reinforce the right behaviours and differentiate within the sector.’

The question of what it means to be competitive in higher education, and how institutions can be supported in achieving this status, is likely to receive more attention in future. Universities are not necessarily going to compete with each other globally in the way that companies do: they do not offer competing products and services, and they do not adjust prices to maximise competition (except to a limited extent in the international student market – though there the competition tends to be more between countries than between institutions). On the other hand, universities provide a knowledge and skills backdrop to investment and start-up decisions, and their standing vis-à-vis other universities in other countries has a significant impact on these decisions.

In my view, this kind of competitiveness does matter, but it is not the same kind as might be in the mind of a senior corporate executive. I am not suggesting that John Hennessy is wrong in his above comments, but that it would be interesting to hear him expand on his theme, particularly if his views may be about to influence Irish higher education strategy. I hope he takes an early opportunity to do so.

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7 Comments on “Being competitive in higher education”

  1. PatrickL Says:

    On an individual and personal level, I think competition would be positive, if only because I experience occasional demoralisation when I see people who do less and have achieved less being paid much more, while being blocked from applying for promotion due to length of service myself (not an issue now of course – thanks, ECF). So I think he’s right about our HR structures: they are not designed to get the best out of people. And if competition is good for individuals it will probably be good for the sector.

    One comment I would make, however, is that we already compete with each other, don’t we? And this competition does occur in a systematic and strategic way, as for example with research funding at national level through IRCSET and IRCHSS and PRTLI. And we also compete for good students too – not just the high achievers who make our work more satisfying and worthwhile, but also for international students, who enrich our institutions while also bringing in revenue. I take his point that we need to do more of this, and that competition could be better integrated into our systems and relationships with each other. But he should see that it’s there already, and that we can build on what we have already done.

    I’d question whether institutions can compete against each other in a way that would ‘differentiate institutions’. This is because the institutions are already differentiated. The universities in Cork, Galway and Limerick have to meet regional priorities that don’t apply in the same way in Dublin, for instance. And how can, say, the Department of History in UCD compete against the Department of History in TCD when the former has 500 students whose LC points range from 365 to 600, where the latter has a fraction of that number of students with points in the much narrower range of 480 to 600? A person teaching at UCD has a task that’s very different from the person teaching at TCD even if the research outputs of both scholars are the same. How do you say which one is doing the better job? It’s not impossible, of course, but nor is it easy.

    I’m not dismissing his ideas, but our universities are not like different branches of a business, selling essentially the same product in different places (in fairness, I know he’s not quite saying that either, but my point is that competition needs to be on a reasonably level playing field). So I’d like to see a more detailed description of what he has in mind, since I find it difficult to imagine how this could work effectively in a way that wouldn’t just make the strong institutions stronger.

    I don’t want to be guilty of the very thing I’m about to accuse him of, but it seems to me from his early statements that John Hennessy has a bit of a habit of making sweeping statements without actually taking the time to express properly the realities in the sector. This is a pity because the remarks he’s made to date – including those above – just play into the anti-public-sector rhetoric of some of the newspapers.

    And inevitably he’s going to cause offence, as his recent ‘holding their nose’ comment about the humanities and business did – not because he was telling us what to do, but because it was an ill informed and dismissive remark that showed little awareness of what we ALREADY do, and of what we are capable of doing. Frankly, he seems more ‘against us’ than with us, and I don’t think that’s ideal for a HEA-chief. Nor do I think he would wish to be seen in this way himself. But this thing of always talking about business is not helpful. He reminds me of one of those awful externs who comes from abroad presupposing that what is normal in his home country ought to be normal in Ireland – the worst form of parochialism. I accept that it’s still early days, and the remark at the end of his speech that all students should take an arts/humanities course in their first year implies an awareness of the need to value those disciplines. But he will get further by being positive about what we do now – using it as the basis for our becoming even better.

    All that said, I welcome his statement that Irish universities should be trusted to manage their own HR arrangements.

  2. Perry Share Says:

    As noted by PatrickL there is already substantial competition amongst Irish HEIs, on all sorts of levels and in many dimensions. One recent example of such competition was run by a national peak body – the Higher Education Authority or HEA.

    This was the two iterations of the Strategic Innovation Fund [SIF]. This competition was open to all HEIs under the remit of the HEA, and was run according to rules set by the HEA. It demonstrably (according to the HEA’s own evaluation) had a range of positive impacts across the sector. It also undeniably had negative impacts, led up blind alleys and had unforeseen outcomes.

    The point is that competition exists, and within the HEA’s own ambit. So it would make sense to reflect on the positives and negatives of that direct experience, before making ex cathedra statements.

  3. jfryar Says:

    Can we not just get a big ring, put the university presidents and VCs into it, and let them Ultimate Fight it out on pay-per-view until one is left standing, use the cash generated to fund the third-level system, and argue to politicians that THIS is the rawest form of what it means to be competitive?🙂

    • jfryar Says:

      The point being that ‘competition’ is a buzz word used completely without context. It is therefore entirely meaningless until someone defines what aspects are being competed on. Student numbers? Cash intake? Research funding? Number of academics? Toilet-to-student ratios? What? Until such information is made available, I’ll read ‘competition’ in terms of a street fight between university heads.

  4. Al Says:

    “competition” may be written on the stick giving the beating. One can work out the definition of “competition” if you want… the more important thing is whether the beating continues….

  5. Ernie Ball Says:

    The only thing universities really have to compete for is staff. In this regard, Ireland is currently shooting itself in the foot by seeing its academic staff as a problem to be dealt with by means of extra policing. That combined with paycuts and high teaching loads compared to other countries will ensure that Ireland is unable to compete in the one area that it matters.

    • jfryar Says:

      Here here. In Germany, at least up until fairly recently, it was relatively common for academics to be ‘pinched’ by other institutions – they would, quite literally, get up and go along with research staff and take the equipment with them! I’m wondering if Ireland is or has been moving in the same direction?

      What I’m getting at is whether we might end up with situations where universities have a two-tier system – academics who lecturer and research via publically-funded bodies and ‘hot shot’ blow ins who fulfill some strategic need, conduct research with partially private funding and are not involved in teaching, and are not subject to the pay conditions of others?


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