The future of higher education: the key issue is autonomy

The recent speech by Tom Boland, chief executive of Ireland’s Higher Education Authority, on what he called ‘directed diversity’ prompted a lively debate in the comments section of this blog. The key element of this speech appears to have been the proposal that  universities will need to have their strategic objectives approved by the HEA, to ensure that these are in line with government policies and that there is no unnecessary duplication of provision.

The proposal as described will almost certainly be strongly opposed by at least some groups of lecturers, perhaps because it could remove the discretion from universities as to how to plan their teaching. Some lecturers with this perspective argue that  national strategic coordination will remove the relative freedom and discretion that academics currently enjoy.

However, there is also a wider university dimension. The autonomy of universities is protected in Ireland by the Universities Act 1997, and any change in current practice would arguably require a new statute. But leaving aside the legal dimension, the autonomy of universities ensures that they can address the educational, social, scientific and cultural issues of the day and respond imaginatively to them.  Furthermore, autonomy is not about having the right to decide how to implement strategic objectives that have been set. Rather, autonomy is about determining those strategic objectives in an independent manner.

I doubt that a framework of ‘directed diversity’ can work, because it will have to handle too many inherent contradictions. I would strongly argue that institutional autonomy must remain a major higher education strategy. I am not convinced that Tom Boland’s vision, if implemented, would allow that to be the case.

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12 Comments on “The future of higher education: the key issue is autonomy”

  1. […] struck by the coincidence of Jonathan Rees and Ferdinand von Prondzynski both writing, in different ways, about the significance to academics of being able to set their own […]

  2. no-name Says:

    What are the prospects that the current group of university heads in Ireland will argue against this proposal for central national planning of idea generation, if not with a unanimous position, then each to own-university interests, but in any case with a diversity of arguments, each of which makes clear that this is a proposal which has failed dramatically in the past (as Boland himself alluded to in mentioning in his speech the collapse of the Soviet Union), and whose only hope for success, if implemented, is illusory, residing solely in the possibility that the policy might be subverted?

  3. Al Says:

    It isn’t my intention to be defending Govt intentions, but what you say ignores what may be considered waste by duplication. Excessive duplication may be considered wasteful in term of financial costs and also in terms of academic ability that could have been better focused.
    If Uni’s want to have an X department in every uni in the country, when there may not a demand among students, and maybe even employers and/or civil society, then who pays for it?
    Or course this applies to IOT’s, etc.

    • no-name Says:

      Government sanctioned monopolies have a better track record of averting waste than openly competitive systems?

    • Duplication is not the worst offender in driving up costs. If the government wants unit costs reduced then they should gradually reduce the unit payment to institutions. Then those unable to supply at that cost will withdraw as they will be losing money. It is unlikely that the government will be competent at picking the best supplier.

  4. Ernie Ball Says:

    “Directed diversity” is no more nor less offensive in an academic context than is the notion of “strategic objectives.”

    • An strategic objectives are offensive why? Perhaps, I misunderstand and you think “directed diversity” is a good thing.

      • Ernie Ball Says:

        My point was that it makes no difference to me as a researcher whether the bureaucrats interfering and attempting to “direct” my research are from the university bureaucracy or from the government bureaucracy. In other words, the discussion of “autonomy” never seems to get to the level where actual autonomy should be located: at the level of the individual researcher. Any other arrangement has nothing to do with the university and everything to do with the importation of ill-considered models from business management. It’s supposed to be some great tragedy if the very university presidents who constantly attempt to deny my autonomy and direct my research somehow have their autonomy of action curtailed.

        • I suppose it depends whether you think research was as good 20 years ago as it is now. On the whole the nature and quality of university research, in Ireland at least, is immeasurably better now than it was back then; in the sense that there was hardly any taking place back then. I agree that the integrity and independence of researchers is important. I’m less sure about ‘autonomy’, when historically that tended to mean that you didn’t do any. The correct approach is not at all as easy as you suggest. All these things are complex. Where I agree is that some research management was not well judged. But we are all learning.

  5. […] von Prondzynski had a post on his blog lamenting the loss of university autonomy implied by HEA Head Tom Boland’s recent speech in […]

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