Higher education: from a ‘sector’ to a ‘system’?
Over recent years a view of higher education has developed in a number of countries that runs something like this. Universities have been essential organisations in creating knowledge-driven societies and economies, in creating high value investment and employment, in stimulating entrepreneurial economic activity, in securing innovation in industry and in the provision of services. However, the commitment to institutional autonomy has prevented the emergence of a more fully coordinated national strategy, has had wasteful effects, has encouraged bogus inter-institutional competition, and has made much more difficult the application of appropriate principles of transparency and accountability.
In this analysis, what is seen as the major problem is that universities together behave as a sector rather than a system. They coordinate action to support shared interests such as funding, government policy and the provision of infrastructure, but retreat into full competition to attract students, win research money, gain philanthropic support, and so forth. As a result, governments feel they cannot plan advanced industrial policy, or the development of necessary skills in the workforce, or spatial strategies.
As a result, governments or their agencies have started to look at how they can operate funding levers and other instruments to secure a coordinated system that fully complements public policy. Universities are told that they are still autonomous, but that their autonomy does not include full discretion in determining their strategic direction. Instead, this becomes a matter of negotiation, and through a network of agreements between the government agencies and the universities a ‘system’ is born that avoids duplication and focuses on national priorities. Typically the instrument of coordination is something called an ‘outcome agreement’ that establishes institutional targets the delivery of which is then, at least to some extent, a condition of public funding.
‘Taken overall, the HEA exercises a central oversight role in the higher education system and is the lead agency in the creation of a co-ordinated system of higher education institutions with clear and diverse roles appropriate to their strengths and national needs; it acts as a catalyst for change in the higher education system, requiring higher levels of performance while demonstrating an appropriate level of accountability, consistent with institutional autonomy and academic freedom.’
The plan then indicates that the HEA will establish agreed strategies and outcomes for each institution and then ensure that the institution is held accountable for achieving the outcomes.
It is tempting to dismiss such an approach as a futile exercise in central planning, initiated a couple of decades after central planning in national economies was clearly shown to be wholly disastrous. It is in fact difficult to imagine that the great strengths of higher education – creativity, inventiveness and discovery – can be successfully nurtured through bureaucratic processes.
On the other hand, the increasing volume of funding and resources needed to operate a high value higher education sector makes it unattractive for the taxpayer to throw money in large quantities at institutions that declare they are not going to be told on what they should spend it. Some middle way needs to be found to secure more coordinated strategies that are not the product of bureaucratic directives.
It was in part for this reason that the review of higher education governance in Scotland that I chaired recommended that there should be a forum, convened by government, and involving all the key players (including academics themselves), that would consider national priorities and allow the institutions to find ways of coordinating the sector in response. This, I feel, will be a more sensitive and less bureaucratic way of encouraging the creation of a national ‘system’. It would, I think, be preferable to what is now being proposed for Ireland.