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.