The Irish higher education ‘landscape’

As part of the process that will, we are told, produce a newly reconfigured Irish higher education system, the Higher Education Authority (HEA) has produced another document pointing further in the direction of where it would like the system to go. In this latest document, entitled Completing the Landscape Process for Irish Higher Education, the HEA sets out its intentions as follows.

‘System reconfiguration is aimed at creating a reduced number of higher education institutions of more significant scale and critical mass in the best interests of students. A key objective is to protect the distinctive roles and mission of universities and technological institutes within the Irish system while delivering the quality outcomes in teaching, research and engagement for students and stakeholders envisaged in the National Strategy.’

In fairness to the HEA, its objectives have been stated repeatedly in previous documents and follow a clearly discernible path. It wants fewer higher education institutions; and in particular it wants mergers amongst the institutes of technology, the absorption of teacher training colleges into universities, and a much higher level of specialisation in all institutions including universities. It believes that this will remove or lessen inefficiencies and produce what it calls ‘scale’, or critical mass. It also wants regional clustering, so that institutions in the same general area (though ‘area’ is understood in a somewhat elastic way, as it seems for example to include the entire west coast of Ireland) form part of a coherent structure. It also wants the development of a centralised national strategy that will inform individual institutional direction. All of this is to lead to what the document describes as a ‘co-ordinated and consolidated higher education system’.

The objectives being pursued here have become part of the public narrative of higher education in Ireland, and are repeated by officials and politicians in a manner to suggest that they are obviously appropriate. But whether they really are appropriate, and certainly whether they are necessary, has not ever really been established through the presentation of anything that might count as evidence. Rather, a set of largely unproven assumptions – with some assumptions that have been shown to be highly questionable if not simply wrong, such as that of ‘scale’ – have taken on iconic status. They are driving policy making, and are threatening to create a new layer of bureaucratic control. They are set to replace the traditional principle of institutional autonomy, on the again quite unproven assertion that this no longer serves the interests of Irish higher education or society.

It would be unfair to suggest that all these plans are wrong. Coordinating institutional objectives with national priorities is potentially useful. Encouraging strategic collaboration is right. But the picture emerging here goes beyond that, and reveals a higher education ‘system’ that is structured to fit a centralised bureaucratic model.

The HEA has overall been a good friend of the higher education sector, but it has allowed itself to be persuaded that something is wrong where there are no real signs of anything untoward. In consequence attention that could usefully be directed to some much more obviously beneficial reform, particularly given the changing pedagogical and demographic trends of recent years, is now being focused on a structural reconfiguration that hardly seems called for and that could actually undermine innovation and creativity within the sector.

Probably this path is now set, and there are few signs that there is any resistance from the institutions themselves. I still doubt it is the right path, however. Furthermore, the journey down this path is beginning just as other countries, for example Germany, are moving in the opposite direction, as they have come to realise the importance of university autonomy. It’s a strange world.

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18 Comments on “The Irish higher education ‘landscape’”

  1. V.H Says:

    I’ve come to the conclusion that it wouldn’t matter if the university sector stood on one leg, the other wrapped over the neck tapping their head and hopping. None of this, no matter what is said, is the real question. Put simply, you are getting cash from the exchequer. That’s it. There is nothing more. And while you continue to suckle they will do what they do and control you out of existence until you aren’t a cost anymore. All else is flannel.
    The sector, those that can, would be far better off doing a true costing of existing debt and taking a once off payment. Then setting fees like Harvard at five to ten times the cost. All while making certain that those that can’t pay get abatement.
    All problems in Irish education stem from the inability of the universities to manage their own destiny. If you think about it, the professional bodies have more say in what goes on than the various senates and management committees and gain all the goodies from you efforts.

  2. Anna Notaro Says:

    This is not a comment on the content of the post, as it goes beyond my competence, just on a formal aspect, if you like, I was struck by the title of this report ‘Completing the Landscape Process for Irish Higher Education’ which got me thinking on how pervasive the landscape (or spatial) metaphor, has become over the past ten years or so (this in parallel with ‘narrative’). In fact the concept of the topographic map and the mental schemata associated to it are to be found in a variety of fields. According to some this is due to the ubiquity of maps used throughout many centuries, for others it’s because they constitute a natural metaphor for the human beings that have evolved in a spatial environment that required a knowledge of terrain and space in order to survive. I would hazard that in the case discussed in today’s post the metaphor is meant not only to confirm the novelty of approach (after all landscaping refers to any activity that significantly modifies the existing visible features of an area of land), the innovative elements of what is proposed which now come to completion, but also, there is a subtle aspect, universities are very much ‘local entities’, the new ‘landscape’ is meant to convey the idea that the new structural configuration is a best, more ‘natural’ fit in the nation’s (read more centralized) land-scape…

  3. Mark Says:

    Thanks for your comments FVP. We seem to have very little public debate on this. The assumptions about the benefits of these mergers are vague and unproven. We will have to assume that redundancies will be on the table after Croke Park II to allow these changes to save money. I don’t think anyone really believes that this is driven by anything other than the bottom line. The other alternative is that this is to meet the predicted student number crisis by reconfiguring the system to take more students at a lower cost (so no more new staff salaries are needed).

    I believe the figures in ministerial answers show that the annual grant to the University sector is down by around 300 million since 2008. This gives some idea of the budget pressures.

    After some online analysis elsewhere on things like the TCD/UCD merger, we at least have some evidence that such an action would not automatically improve the ranking of a joint institution as some commentators have assumed.

  4. cormac Says:

    Great to see such points cleary articulated in at least one outlet Ferdinand, I hope you get a chance to publish something on this in The Irish Times.
    I think you’re right that the views of the HEA on mergers are consistent, but lack supporting evidence that such mergers are potentially beneficial to anyone – the colleges, the student sor the taxpayer.
    To pick the WIT case, what possible advantage is there in us ‘combining’ with IT Carlow? Who does this serve? The only rationale for this merger was the highly questionable view of certian politicans that it would somehow allow us ‘qualify’ to become a technological university. A strange view in the first place, and now it looks like we may get stuck with the merger but not the TU, oh joy!
    Could it be that there is no-one in the HEA who has direct experience of college administartion and admissions? Perhaps to them, we are just collections of buildings and departments to be rearranged at will….

    • I agree with you, Cormac – in fact I have asked a few times why a merger with Carlow (one of the weaker IoTs) makes WIT a better candidate for university status. It is totally counter-intuitive.

      • V.H Says:

        It has long been a goal to create a unit out of the south east. In the past three large estates controlled huge amounts of land and with it the economy of the region. But it’s a region that gets in it’s own way as each of the constitute parts compete against each other. And it is far more likely to face inward than outward. Nowadays the largest economic unit is Glanbia which crosses Carlow, Kilkenny, South Tipperary and Waterford. One of the reasons it’s so unfocused is there is no one single city very much bigger than all the others and unifying all the IoT might aid in that goal.

  5. Ernie Ball Says:

    What hope do we have when the very titles of reports from the Higher Education Authority are half-literate pablum? WTF is “completing the landscape process” supposed to mean? If I have to read the report to find out, then why not call it “sqx$@( 7:%}ft,” which is just as effective.

  6. Al Says:

    I wonder if the landscaping metaphor is drawing on gardening as its source….
    In the sense that they want to plant more grass and do away with weeds. …. but weeds may be where its at!
    Perhaps all these plans are being developed on golf courses?

  7. Colum McCaffery Says:

    “Landscape process” has become my latest trophy. I have a collection of complete bollocks. You are being far too generous in trying to take this kind of thing as anything other than evidence that managerialism continues to thrive. Let us hope for the sake of the stakeholders that it is a robust landscape process that is fit for purpose and in accordance with best practice …

  8. no-name Says:

    “It also wants regional clustering, so that institutions in the same general area (though ‘area’ is understood in a somewhat elastic way, as it seems for example to include the entire west coast of Ireland) form part of a coherent structure.”

    Do you know if this instance of “joined up thinking” is meant to extend to a direct rail connection between Sligo and Galway to facilitate amalgamation, or will the affected students still be expected to take the train via Dublin?

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