Reconfiguring the Irish system of higher education

The Higher Education Authority (HEA) has, as part of its programme for implementing the national higher education strategy in Ireland (the Hunt report), has issued a paper setting out how it hopes to develop the structure of the system from its present state. The paper, Towards a Future Higher Education Landscape, makes certain assumptions about the current state of the sector and how it should be reformed. At the heart of these assumptions is the belief that what will make Irish higher education successful will be a much greater diversity of institutional mission that has been nationally coordinated. This position is expressed as follows in the paper:

‘In order to create and sustain a diverse yet coherent system, it will be essential that all institutions have a clear perspective on their particular mission and role within the overall system. In particular, it will be essential that institutions ensure that their programmes continue to be reflective of, and appropriate to, their mission.’

This diversity, the HEA believes, will need to be reflected in ‘greater differentiation based on field specialisation, programme orientation and mode of delivery.’ This in turn will be accompanied by ‘regional clusters’ which will allow students to tap into various specialisms spread across the universities and colleges in their area, at least in areas where there are several institutions that make this possible; and the HEA also envisages ‘mission-based clusters’ that will not depend on geographical proximity. All of this will also, the HEA intends, lead to the ‘elimination of unnecessary duplication of provision’.

The other key plan set out in the paper is to bring to an end the state funding of smaller institutions, which will have to merge with larger universities or colleges in order to survive. Institutes of technology will also have to consider mergers, leading to what the paper says will be ‘a smaller number of multi-campus institutions.’

The HEA rightly recognises that this kind of re-ordering will, as it puts it, ‘not occur in an “organic” way’, and it therefore envisages ‘top-down’ action. It therefore acknowledges a risk to institutional autonomy, but argues that this can be overcome by a phased and ‘agreed’ process of implementation; though one must assume that a different framework from that envisaged is not available to be ‘agreed’. As part of this process, universities and colleges are now to put forward proposals to the HEA involving one or more of options that include merger, clustering, conversion to ‘technological university’, or the establishment of a ‘specialist institution’. In the meantime the HEA will commission a paper addressing ‘the number of institutions, the range of missions and the alliances and relationships which have the potential to strengthen the system.’

What all of this represents is a significant reconfiguration of the Irish system of higher education, from one characterised by autonomous but (increasingly) collaborating institutions, to one based on a national, centrally coordinated plan.

It is easy to see how such a nationally directed system could look neat in a bureaucratic sense, but the HEA paper makes little attempt to explain in what way the system will deliver something better once reconfigured, and how those using it (students, industry, communities) will benefit. It acknowledges that the world’s best universities are highly autonomous, and it accepts that the plan will affect autonomy; but it does not say in any specific way what compensating benefits will emerge. It does not address at all the impact of these changes on basic principles such as academic freedom.

It is true that institutions will be able to propose their own plans for focused mission, but since all this will need to add up across the system as a whole, their ability to design their own strategic options will be seriously limited. And while it is entirely right that a small national system should encourage collaboration, in some contexts excellence requires competition also.

Given its role as funder of the system, the state has a legitimate right to look for both excellence and value for money in higher education. So for example, it can appropriately question institutions on issues such as unnecessarily overlapping provision, while however bearing in mind that a university will need, in each case, to be able to offer certain intellectual building blocks within the institution. What we are being asked to contemplate here is that institutional autonomy is wasteful, and that a ‘national system’ that distributes educational and research activity amongst institutions characterised by their specialisms will be better. This, it has to be said, is a mighty big experiment, and one without any currently successful model elsewhere to draw on or to provide some comfort. It changes the nature of institutional strategy from content to process, and vests substantive planning in a central structure. In short, it is threatening to replace institutional initiative with central planning, a framework that was not spectacularly successful in countries where it has been tried.

It is hard to resist the view that managing higher education by grand design is not the best way forward. In fact, Irish higher education has impressed both itself and the world with its ability to absorb serious funding cuts while still, more or less, maintaining acceptable levels of excellence and quality. It does this with resources that are now very substantially smaller than those available to less successful competing national systems. There is, in short, no evidence that Ireland’s higher education sector is wasteful. There is no evidence that the existing model is in any serious way deficient. There is therefore little evidence of a need for the kind of centralised system being proposed, and there are many serious risks that will attend its implementation.

I could be proved wrong. But this is a big leap in the dark.

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5 Comments on “Reconfiguring the Irish system of higher education”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Forgive me for what I’m about to write.

    Who, in 100 words, could not put down the essence of this document. It’s the Scorpion and the Frog.

    Now more than ever I think it’s time all the universities remove themselves from funding control of the State. Otherwise, what we’ll end up with will make the HSE debacle look like a sound forward-looking tactics.
    It’s time to accept the charge of the Establishing Warrants and be independent. Then bill the State as they would any other contracting party for services.

  2. I think I’m with you on that Vincent. I often think that if we were a private institution selling courses to the government, we would be far more efficient and effective. But what are the chances of that. Perhaps it’s natural for people (including myself) to think that our own views are right and do what we can to try to get them implemented (including removing autonomy from others). Centralised planning (“directed diversity” – HEA) has the potential to be a complete disaster.

  3. PB Says:

    Thank you FVP for your informed comments on this. I have engaged conscientiously with a number of institutions to discuss partnership over the past 2 years. There are real issues with the idea that institutions can form some sort of fixed strategic alliance. These sorts of alliance require additional time commitment to work. In many cases there is a resource commitment as new courses are set up. If the idea is that you take one module at University A and then another at University B, there are issues with University brand that are of significance to students and issues of timetabling. If I co-supervise a PhD at another institution and this co-supervision is substantial, how does this work if the fees are retained by the other institution? Does forming an alliance trump the better educational outcome? Unintended outcomes are very likely and we should not be surprised to see institutions investing energy in ‘gaming’ the system. High minded talk about strategic alliances will be difficult to act on if institutions lose significant revenue as a consequence. Almost every aspect of the HEA approach has the feel of grandiose plans by people who have no idea how the practicalities might work.

  4. cormac Says:

    Well said Ferdinand, I couldn’t agree more. From an IoT perspective, I can’t for the life of me see any advantage in amalgamating institutes that are in the same sector.
    I can, however, see a major disadvantage. Like most academics, I take pride in my institution, and enjoy doing my bit for the profile of the college. But academic research is a self-tasked activity. I suspect amalgamating colleges into some larger entity will result in a loss of identity and a loss of drive for many of us

  5. paddy healy Says:

    The process of compulsory rationalisation and mergers in the HEA/Government plan for higher education contains serious dangers for the future of higher education including access to higher education. The central problem is that the measures are driven mainly by the perceived need for short term (and long term) cost reductions. Such savings can be counter-productive not only for the well-being of the citizens but even for the good of the economy as a whole. For example, the cost problems currently experienced by students from locations outside the big centres could be extended to students in the larger centres, as pointed out by Mike Jennings. The following points by Ferdinand Von Prodzynski are also well made: “It is easy to see how such a nationally directed system could look neat in a bureaucratic sense, but the HEA paper makes little attempt to explain in what way the system will deliver something better once reconfigured, and how those using it (students, industry, communities) will benefit. It acknowledges that the world’s best universities are highly autonomous, and it accepts that the plan will affect autonomy; but it does not say in any specific way what compensating benefits will emerge. It does not address at all the impact of these changes on basic principles such as academic freedom.”
    I would also be concerned that the proposed changes would fail to take into account the differing levels of attainment reached by students entering third level. In my view, a significant proportion of students entering third level cannot be developed by a system in which a lecturer addresses hundreds of students at lecture and tutorials are delivered by postgraduate students with no pedagogic training. There is also the danger that the strengths of the Institute of Technology system would be diluted by incentivising development towards the role of a traditional university on the one hand and the growth of centralised direction on the other. These fears are evident in the statement of Brendan Murphy.
    The reality is that the process of change and the implementation of change will be in the hands of present and future governments which espouse a neo-liberal ideology including the imposition of business models on academic institutions. Will the concept of learning and scolarship for its own sake have any place in the proposed system? Would the modern equivalent of those who have made giant leaps in all fields of human understanding and aesthetic endeavour be supported in the new system? Will disciplines which have no immediate or direct economic use be further “down-sized”? Will the invaluable work being carried out in craft-based areas (eg electrician, fitter, plasterer, carpenter etc) be “deprioritised” in a rush for university status?
    The changes now being proposed could have huge immediate and lasting effects.
    There is an urgent need for a thorough and informed discussion.
    Paddy Healy

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