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.

This particular methodology has most recently been established in Ireland. The Higher Education Authority (HEA), in its latest strategic plan, has described its role as follows:

‘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.

Explore posts in the same categories: higher education

Tags: , , , ,

You can comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.

5 Comments on “Higher education: from a ‘sector’ to a ‘system’?”

  1. Vince Says:

    It’s hard in an epigram to comment when an essay is needed. But here goes.

    Mostly the universities are creatures of the era when they were set up. I think that goes far to explain the stubborn resistance of the NUI and the nimbleness of TCD. But even TCD isn’t as nimble as the Plantagenet colleges. The question is what makes the early establishments nimble when places chartered in1968 are bastions of lead footed conservatism. I would say Cash is the answer. It’s easy to tell a central governmental agency to rack off and mind your own business if you’ve a cash reserve and access to advise that would make Lydian satrap jealous.
    To my mind there needs to be a dramatic revisiting of the chartering legislation. This to widen the voting rights to all members of university then once the VC is seated he/she/it rules as abbot. To provide a ten year tranche of cash as an endowment. Then leave them the hell alone.

  2. When I commented on your publication of the report (https://universitydiary.wordpress.com/2012/02/01/governing-universities-2/#comment-18630) it seemed to me that you were attempting to manage a trend towards greater control of the institutions by the state, increased regulation and more central planning/political control.

    You denied it at the time.

    • Yes, and I deny it now as well… The proposed forum has nothing to do with control, but opens the way for dialogue that avoids control measures like those being proposed in Ireland. That’s the whole point!

  3. Dan Says:

    Interesting post, Ferdinand. I wonder is there any evidence out there to support the thesis that in fact, the great “strengths of higher education – creativity, inventiveness, discovery” are actually being thwarted through “bureaucratic processes”…ironically, could we provide metrics to demonstrate how innovation is being strangled by constant audits, surveys, increased electronic administration, email circulars and inititivitis?

  4. Anna Notaro Says:

    This discussion has reminded me of A. Smith’s famous warning words, worth keeping in mind when striving for the best ‘system’ even in such a different context..
    ”The man of system . . . is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamored with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess-board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess-board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess-board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might choose to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.”

    — Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, 1759

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: