The future of higher education: ‘directed diversity’?

In Ireland, the chief executive of the Higher Education Authority (Ireland’s higher education funding council), Tom Boland, has just made a very interesting speech in which he has set out his vision for the future of the system. It is worth setting out verbatim the key passage in his speech:

‘The first and most crucial reform envisaged is what I’d like to term the end of the era of laissez faire in higher education, and its replacement by what might be termed “directed diversity”. By laissez faire, I mean the strategic approach to higher education which has had at its centre light touch regulation – a term that has now become deeply unpopular and not just in financial circles. While light touch regulation has brought us much success in higher education, including soaring participation rates and a standard of higher education which is good by any benchmark, it has also given us unnecessary and inefficient duplication in programme provision; it has given us mission creep; inflexible staffing structures and practices and it has given us a fragmented system of institutions with no national, coherent strategic focus…

… We now need to transform Irish higher education from a set of institutions operating in isolation into a coherent, well co-ordinated system of higher education and research.’

A little later he added:

‘Through this process I believe we can build a higher education system which concentrates investment in multiple centres of excellence, right across the system; which brings coherence to these centres as a whole system; which encourages collaborations where these make sense from the viewpoint of a quality student learning experience; which greatly enhances accountability by greatly enhancing the quality and comparability of data on the performance of the system, and which ensures that we have diversity of institutions offering a wide range of provision combined with clear institutional focus on national goals. This is what I mean by the term “directed diversity”.’

The question addressed by Tom Boland, which is one that had also been examined by Ireland’s recent report on higher education strategy (the Hunt report), is whether the strategic development of the higher education system should flow from the decisions of autonomous universities or from a nationally coordinated plan, however that plan might be constructed. His conclusion that national coordination is necessary is not unique in global higher education.

All of this addresses the key issue of university autonomy, what it means and whether it is important; or indeed if it is important, how it should be exercised. These are the absolutely critical issues of higher education. They will determine its future nature and direction.

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48 Comments on “The future of higher education: ‘directed diversity’?”

  1. Fred the Dog Says:

    Mr. Boland makes excellent points about programme duplication.

    For example, Filmbase (a resource centre for short filmmakers funded by the Arts Council in Ireland) is now offering something called a MSc in Digital FIlm Production, in association with some British institution or other.

    It sounds good. MSc for a start – as opposed to all the MAs that are available in similar fields from DCU, TCD, UCD, DIT and a host of other regional ITs. Might be enough to sway a couple of dozen people a year who think it might make a jot of difference in actually landing a job. And after all, Filmbase has a ‘brand’ of sorts within the industry.

    Personally (and it’s not easy, Ferdinand, to divine your own positiion on this issue) I’m not sure what this means. Is Filmbase now some sort of quasi outboard University campus? Should this kind of thing be tolerated? Is central planning a good or a bad thing?

    I believe every educational institution should stand on the expertise of its current faculty, with a small multiplier allowed (temporarily) for its historical contribution to the field. Most students will sign up for the historically prestigious programmes, with a nod towards recent trends. But the third level field has exploded so much in recent years/decades that it is perhaps less easy than in the past to decide where the centres of excellence exist. Maybe it is indeed time to pause for thought, because excellence should be the starting point when comparing the merits of ‘me too’ programmes.

    What serves the citizen best? And how to enshrine excellence at ALL levels – including the ability to make excellent choices within the CAO system (or its international course selection/offer equivalents) for example.

  2. Vincent Says:

    Do you not think that it’s more necessary than ever that the entire community declare/reassert it’s independence.
    By this I mean a complete and total cutting off from the governments purse.
    It cannot take more than a day to extract from the numbers what to charge the student body. Nor would it take much longer to draw up a Charter that would ease the minds of the general population about restrictions on access.

  3. kevin denny Says:

    Laissez faire in higher education? What planet is this guy on? Central government is knee deep in micro-managing HE and this has increased over time (such as the ECF). “Directed diversity” is an Orwellian phrase for it taking even more control.

  4. Al Says:

    Ferd. You have been on the record saying that there are too many law graduates in the country?

    Should the state which funds the fees, student grants and then the potential percentage of law graduates unemployment benefits and re training/ education?
    Nevermind the capital costs of the law faculty, faculty wages, etc…

    It doth gild the Lilly to proclaim autonomic virtues, considering the investment from the state, partially outlined above. Should the state fund the above situation or should it be more discerning with the public purse.

    The key will probably finding the point of balance between state and church, sorry, state and academia.
    And no offense to law graduates!

  5. no-name Says:

    It is difficult not to see the Boland argument as an over-generalization of a principle which appears necessary for other areas of the economic system (that is, it is urgent at present to suspend the era of laissez faire approaches to those aspects of the economic system which siphon off wealth behind the illusion of creating it, particularly in the financial sector) to areas of the system which would be stifled by central control (especially those areas that generate new ideas and, therefore, genuine economic growth).

    It seemed for a while that both conservative and progressive thinkers both converged on the realization that totalitarian central planning of production is inefficient to the point of counter-productivity. It also seemed that the disruptive technologies of the last few decades, those which have transformed the global economy by introducing new efficiencies and growth, have emerged rather more organically than from any sort of nationally oriented, top-down planning. Thus, it is stunning that the vocabulary of progressive thinking (regulate the financial sector) should be turned to conservative purposes (regulate the generation of new ideas).

    The Boland speech refers to “inefficient duplication in programme provision” (pg 8). However, healthy competition is normally claimed to be at the heart of an efficient and successful economy (again, by both conservative and progressive thinkers). The speech makes clear that its focus is “education and research” with worryingly heavy emphasis on the word “system” (p. 9). The emphasis appears to be on totality.

    If the context were of genuine strategic thinking (e.g., what would it take to send another human mission to the moon; what would it take to eliminate TB; what would it take to eliminate road-traffic fatalities) such that meeting the grand challenge would touch all sectors of the economy without micro-management of the contributions, then it would be reasonable to imagine central management of the overarching goal, but not the creative paths that lead to the goal. In the absence of a real strategy, it is an inefficient mistake to fund only some ideas because they can be made to sound consistent with central planning.

    Kevin Denny’s position that this is Orwellian is apt: thought police cannot be far away in Boland’s plan. However, in face of reasonably recent demonstrations of the failure of centrally planned economies (curiously, Boland’s speech actually refers to the collapse of the Soviet Union (pg. 6)), choosing to steer the systems in that direction again seems to be a plot twist one might equally expect of Heller or Kafka.


  6. I’m more or less with no-name on this. The idea that we can design a centrally controlled system that is more efficient is just not true. Designing optimal solutions in complex systems (education) in changing environments (technology, economics) is very near impossible. Competition would be more likely to achieve the outcomes required. All the more likely because the outcomes that are the highest priority are the reduction of unit costs. If this is what they want to achieve (and I do agree it is worth achieving), all they have to do is change the model of funding and move the money to the providers who are doing best on this outcome. (they may have to do a little quality assurance too, but I suspect that this is not a high priority). Funding the outcomes you want will soon change behaviour. Tell us WHAT you want us to achieve, not HOW to achieve it, because to be honest with you I don’t believe there is great understanding up there how learning works, much less in this new technological environment.

    I know that some will say that this will start a race to the bottom and indeed that is possible. However, if the defined outcomes are later widened to include this, and they develop some competence at measuring this (which does not seem to be there at the moment), that problem can also be solved.

    Let’s imagine we have been hit by an economic meteor, remove the protection from the dinosaurs, and let a wave of Darwinian evolution find the optimal solutions from agile private and public sector suppliers.

    • John Carter Says:

      Does optimizing each part of a system necessarily optimize the whole?


      • @john carter “Does optimizing each part of a system necessarily optimize the whole?”. Yes, I would imagine so – if the partitioning of the system has been optimised. Having said that, why don’t we just try it and then QUICKLY change if it is not working. An important characteristic here is agility. The environment will change anyway. We don’t have enough empirical experimentation in the public domain. To be honest I thought the weakest part of my argument was the quality measurement bit. Having said that, for the next few years the government will not be much concerned about quality, just costs. A bit like “When hunger comes in the window, love goes out the door”

        I agree that measuring outputs can be difficult, particularly with regard to quality, but I don’t believe that it is difficult for find optimal solutions using real competition in a Darwinian fashion. Of course, as Brian Lucey has suggested, this real competition will require some actors be allowed to fail.

        • John Carter Says:

          Suppose the aim of the London Underground was to minimize losses and it was discovered that the best way to do it was to shut it down. Further suppose this would have a negative impact on the financial success of London. You’ve optimized a part and de-optimized the whole.


          • @john We’re getting a little off topic here (and there’s an economist in the room), but I would imagine if London needs an underground they will put an economic value on it and be prepared to subsidise the operation up to that value. If more is required then they would do without. This, of course, requires some competence with hard sums.

          • John Carter Says:

            The point is to take on board the general principle. Optimizing each part won’t necessarily optimize the whole.

    • John Carter Says:

      And agreeing on the defined outcomes of the system as a whole, then finding ways of measuring them, then optimal ways of achieving them are all hard to do.

      Having said that, I like that ‘engineering’ way of framing the problem.

      At the moment we use the liberal democratic method ~ chuck a little money at the problem and measure the total amount of shouting. Not bad, but slow, and silence is ambiguous.

  7. Ernie Ball Says:

    When morons have “visions” are we supposed to take them seriously? When they proffer manifest absurdities about “light touch regulation,” are we all to pretend they’re making sense?

    Also, what exactly are Tom Boland’s qualifications to be pontificating about universities and dictating policy? I know he’s the head of the HEA, but that appointment isn’t the only obvious bubble-era mistake to have been made in high-level recruitment in Ireland. What exactly in his background as a lawyer and civil engineer bespeaks any kind of knowledge of or engagement with the conceptual underpinnings of the University?

    • Jilly Says:

      completely agree Ernie. The man is a menace to decent quality higher education in this country, and has often spoken/behaved in ways which have made me wonder if he’s ever actually read his own job description.


    • @ernie Not that I want to defend “directed (read “centrally-controlled”) diversity”, but as you more or less said yourself, what dose the man’s background and training have to do with it. Even if he was previously a truck drive in Akron, we will need to judge this idea on its merits.

  8. brianmlucey Says:

    Excellent as ever Ferdinand
    I look at this and take off in a different direction at http://brianmlucey.wordpress.com/2011/09/03/education-reform-and-an-alexandrian-solution/

    • Ernie Ball Says:

      Pity you don’t have comments enabled, brianmlucey. But I note with interest that you repeat the canard that Irish academics are overpaid, which I refuted here. Is this what counts as “research” in “business studies” (an oxymoron if ever there was one)? Just continually repeat the falsehood (while making sure to cite Morgan Kelly at every turn, who also hasn’t given more than a moment’s thought to the question and certainly hasn’t investigated it in any detail) no matter what the evidence actually suggests? And would you consider a professor who repeatedly engages in such misrepresentations to be among the “best” (and therefore deserving of astronomical remuneration in your proposed plan) or among the worst (and therefore perhaps better suited to teaching upper secondary school in your plan)?


    • @brianmlucey Some very radical solutions there Brian and hardly any that I would disagree with. However, what are the chances that these would be taken seriously by politicans. It might be easier just to go the whole hog and privatise all the higher education institutes and put them all on the same footing as the private colleges that are also providing nationally accredited courses. While they are at it they could privatise the hospitals and get some competition going there as well.

  9. brianmlucey Says:

    Ernie
    I dont have time, or am not as efficient in its use as thee and Ferdinand. Your pintos well known. Now, to the points made here and on my blog? Or are you a one trick pony?

  10. brianmlucey Says:

    One last point ernie. Your Views would have a lot more credibility if you were open about who you are….this aint Iran or china where you need to hide. Man up, and come out from the cloud..
    Of course, then we could see your research output so maybe that’s why you are hiding…:)

    • Ernie Ball Says:

      On my “research output,” I have nothing to hide. Obviously it’s all publicly available under my real name: both the names of the publications and the publications themselves. The only thing you don’t have is the link between the things Ernie Ball says and that publication record. But why should you have it? What difference does it make to you? You actually answer this question in your last sentence, which raises the following question for you: how do you square your status as an enquirer, academic and, being charitable, a public intellectual with the fact that, apparently, you think it entirely reasonable to judge another academic in a field about which you know nothing without understanding or even so much as reading a single thing he has written? Is this not the nadir of anti-intellectualism? It doesn’t matter what the research says, all that matters is how much of it there is. And this is of a piece with a modus operandi that sees nothing wrong with repeatedly proffering demonstrable falsehoods (all the while engaging in ass-covering by citing a revered authority ex cathedra). For who cares if what you say is true? All that matters is that you say it and how many times you say it. Nicht wahr?

      The fact that there are many willing to issue equally summary judgements in this benighted little country means that even tenured academics cannot speak their minds without the protections of pseudonymity. This makes contemporary Ireland not a far cry at all from Iran or China.


      • Ernie, your last statement there can do with some corroboration. I should stress that I have no issue with anyone using pseudonyms, for whatever reason or none, but the assertion that academics cannot speak their minds in Ireland without risk is, as far as I am aware, not borne out by, well, anything. I know of no academic in Ireland – literally none – who was disadvantaged as a result of speaking their mind. And it should be said, there is no shortage of academics to have done so; indeed a whole meeting in the Gresham Hotel was, in part, a celebration of academic dissent openly spoken. I do not believe that anyone was targeted in any kind of way as a result.

        If you make this claim, Ernie, you need to be able to substantiate it.

        • Ernie Ball Says:

          Are you kidding? I work at a university where the senior management are notorious for their Nixonian tendency to divide staff into “friends” and “enemies” and doing everything they can to help the former (even unauthorised emoluments as documented in the Public Accounts Committee) and everything they can to punish the latter. They are also known for overreaching micromanagement so that even routine aspects of academic life are increasingly subject to heavy-handed oversight by the bureaucrats (à la the IUA’s new plans for academics to “apply” to “management” for annual summer leave). In this context, any UCD academic who publicly says unfavourable things about management and what they are doing to the University should have their head examined. Indeed, the most prominent public critics of the current regime have all been emeriti.

  11. brianmlucey Says:

    Because ernie, you could be a truck driver in Akron for all we know. Now, do you have any actual comments on what I said or what. Ferdinand said, or are you just, as I said, a one trick Pony on how hard a deal academics get?

    • Ernie Ball Says:

      The appropriate place for a comment on your blog post is not Ferdinand’s post on a related topic. It is on your blog. I only chose to post here because comments are closed on your blog. I can therefore only assume that this demand for comment is so much bluster.

      Open the comments and I’ll tell you what I think.

      As for the idea of a professor of business castigating a humanities lecturer for not having sufficiently broad interests, well, it’s laughable on its face.

      Finally, I may well be a truck driver from Akron. I don’t see why that should have any bearing on the truth or falsity of what I have to say.

  12. brianmlucey Says:

    Maybe Ferdinand you could do a post on how lucky we are in these isles w our tolerance and freedom to dissent?

  13. brianmlucey Says:

    Nice ask Ferdinand. I suspect ernie , soi disant, can’t

    • Vincent Says:

      Are both you and FvP being a bit asymmetrical here. If Mr Ball feels he can be damaged. Then either he can be damaged or the Body of which he is part has such bad management practices such that he has the impression he can have damage done onto him.
      It might be as well to remember he is far from being the only voice to incise such fears, real or otherwise.


      • I think there is a difference between say, complaining about managerialism in universities (whether one agrees or not) and claiming that people will be or are punished for expressing their views. The latter is an accusation of serious wrong-doing, and shouldn’t just be put out there without corroboration. I genuinely don’t believe that anyone is punished in an Irish university for expressing their views, no matter how uncomfortable these might be to the management. I genuinely believe that. If that is not true, however, then we ought to address it, but for that we need chapter and verse. This blog is open to those wanting to address that.

        • Vincent Says:

          I truly wish it was a stretch to move what he/she has said from the realm of the outlandish into the very very real. But it isn’t any stretch at all.
          Note, that the priest down in Cloyne didn’t lick from a stone the threat to that teacher who wouldn’t procure altar boys for his use. That method is overt and covert within ALL areas of society.

        • Ernie Ball Says:

          You all display a touching naivety about how such punishment is meted out in academia, especially considering I’m talking to a university president. Punishment here isn’t 40 whips of the lash. Nor does it take the form of actual stripping away of the entitlements of one’s position. That’s not how it works. The way it works is this: management increasingly insists on its right to sign off on all sorts of things (not only promotions and tenuring but now grant applications, research leave applications, summer leave, etc.). And the committees that concern themselves with these things are stacked with “friends” and “fellow travellers.” Speak up too forcefully against administration plans and you may inexplicably find your application for promotion or research leave denied. Yes, I have seen it happen under this regime: for example, people denied for Senior Lectureships who were given Professorships on appeal. No, I’m not going to name names.


          • Without wanting to be too difficult about this, it seems to me, Ernie, that you have just given evidence of the exact opposite of what you are claiming. You say that ‘people denied for Senior Lectureships who were given Professorships on appeal’ – which seems to me to establish that the system properly protects people, assuming that the initial decision in these cases was in any way related to dissent.

            I’m not denying the importance of this. But this is a very big accusation. It is essentially an accusation that the university is corrupt. That does need some real evidence.


  14. This is all getting a bit off topic. I was hoping to see more debate on competition vs. centrally controlled education in Ireland.

    Although i don’t agree with Ernie’s views on the above topic, I do agree with him that there is significant potential for damage to your career by annoying the wrong people in public, and that one should be judged on the merits of your arguments and evidence and not your research record. (Isn’t that why we have blind reviews?)

  15. Ernie Ball Says:

    My point was that the initial decision was related to dissent. I have other examples I could cite of people forced out of positions for not playing along…

    You need evidence that the university is corrupt? Did you miss the story when it was unearthed that UCD paid millions in authorised bonuses (bonuses!) mostly to members of the SMT? This at the same time that Schools were being told they couldn’t have coffee at meetings anymore because it was too costly…

  16. Regina Says:

    Over ten years ago, Michael Fullan was urging educational leaders to ‘work on their emotional intelligence’ and ‘not to take dissenters personally’ http://tinyurl.com/43k54c3

    Sounds like a call for a reprint…?


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