It is probably true to say that a number of key decisions over the coming years will determine what kind of university system Ireland will have in future. One of the key determinants will be the resourcing and funding model, and the extent to which universities will be able to compete internationally. Another will be the make-up of the student body, and whether we will succeed in attracting larger numbers into higher education, particularly from disadvantaged backgrounds. Another will be whether we will succeed in developing excellence in research in key areas where we can be world-leading.
However, the key issue that will require a decision, or a cluster of decisions, will concern university autonomy. The Universities Act 1997 provides for the right of universities to conduct their own affairs and develop their strategies independently, subject to various forms of accountability. In this context the Act was a progressive and visionary piece of legislation, providing the attribute that is generally recognised as supporting excellence and securing the ability to be world class. But in practice, autonomy is hemmed in by financial constraints and regulation, and by ever-increasing bureaucratic demands (on which I shall write separately in due course).
The phenomenal growth of US universities from the 1950s onwards, allowing them to dominate international league tables, has owed much to the understanding there by government that only autonomous universities can produce the innovation and excellence that in turn supports a knowledge society and economy. European universities on the whole were put on a different trajectory, with limited independence and, often, the obligation to teach programmes to a state-designed curriculum; they have also often had little opportunity to pursue high value research, which has in some countries tended to be put into separate research institutes. In part as a result of all this, universities in Germany and France do not appear prominently in international league tables and are usually found to under-perform, relative to the status of the countries concerned.
For the past decade we have got used to thinking of the development of the Irish economy and Irish society in terms of the remark originally made by Mary Harney and ask whether we want to be like Boston or Berlin. At least in terms of higher education strategy, my contention is that we need to look more closely at Boston.