Posted tagged ‘HEA’

Higher education: from a ‘sector’ to a ‘system’?

April 2, 2012

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.

Being competitive in higher education

May 18, 2011

In this blog I recently drew attention to comments made in University College Dublin by the new chair of the Higher Education Authority, Mr John Hennessy, on the topic of what universities should adopt from the private sector. The HEA has now drawn attention to his speech on their website, and it contains the following quote from the speech:

‘My experience in the private sector has taught me that it is absolutely imperative to be competitive. In the last decade, this has changed to be competitive in a global context. A concern I would have for the higher education sector is that there appears to be limited effort to devise and implement a strategy to identify and reward institutions, faculties and individuals that are doing best. We must reward excellence and differentiate between institutions in Higher Education. We must reward and reinforce the right behaviours and differentiate within the sector.’

The question of what it means to be competitive in higher education, and how institutions can be supported in achieving this status, is likely to receive more attention in future. Universities are not necessarily going to compete with each other globally in the way that companies do: they do not offer competing products and services, and they do not adjust prices to maximise competition (except to a limited extent in the international student market – though there the competition tends to be more between countries than between institutions). On the other hand, universities provide a knowledge and skills backdrop to investment and start-up decisions, and their standing vis-à-vis other universities in other countries has a significant impact on these decisions.

In my view, this kind of competitiveness does matter, but it is not the same kind as might be in the mind of a senior corporate executive. I am not suggesting that John Hennessy is wrong in his above comments, but that it would be interesting to hear him expand on his theme, particularly if his views may be about to influence Irish higher education strategy. I hope he takes an early opportunity to do so.

A private sector ethos

May 13, 2011

It is possible that Irish higher education will experience something of a culture war over the coming period. The new chair of the Higher Education Authority, John Hennessy, has said in a speech to a conference in UCD that ‘higher education needs to move closer to the values and practices of the private sector’. He is reported in the Irish Times as saying that this should in particular mean that universities and colleges should be able to hire and fire in the manner that is normal in industry.

The HEA chair had already attracted attention recently when he suggested that arts and humanities academics tended to ‘hold their nose’ when dealing with industry.On this more recent occasion he may have compensated a little by saying that ‘all students should experience arts and humanities subjects in their first year of college’. And still on the positive side, he has stressed the importance of institutional autonomy in the higher education system.

So what do we make of all this? In many ways it is quite refreshing to have one of the key players in higher education expressing such forthright views, as it will tend to sharpen the debate. At a time when the sector will in any case have to consider radical reforms, his interventions will provide some topics for discussion.

On the other hand, if the HEA chair believes that the answer to current higher education difficulties is to introduce routine private sector management practices into the system, he may find it is not quite as easy as that. It might be worthwhile for him to meet key university representatives and hear more about how the institutions operate and what problems they currently face before making suggestions as to what they need to do.

John Hennessy clearly means to be an audible contributor to higher education debate. That must be good. But while universities can and should learn from the private sector, and while greater institutional autonomy (including autonomy in human resources matters) is indeed a vital ingredient of success, private sector ‘values and practices’ cannot provide the sole blueprint for higher education. It is time to have a dialogue with the HEA chair.

No nose for Irish industry?

April 13, 2011

In a world where statements about higher education are often less than fully informed, it is important that the dialogue between universities and the relevant regulatory body – in Ireland’s case the Higher Education Authority – is conducted with a degree of sensitivity and mutual respect. Mostly that has been the case, even where there are disagreements. Therefore I found it somewhat startling when the new chair of the HEA, John Hennessy, was recently reported by the Irish Independent as saying that some academics in the arts and humanities ‘”hold their nose” at the idea of working with industry’. He went on, apparently, to suggest that ‘the humanities have a problem in communicating their contribution to the wider society – a problem the sciences do not have.’

It may of course be that the HEA chair had some specific evidence for these assertions that the newspaper did not include in the report. It may also be that he had more detailed proposals as to how and where the arts and humanities should be engaging with industry where currently they are not or where their communication with society falls down. But if so, it would be helpful to see some of this evidence and assess the proposals. As it is, my fear is that the comments, which he made on the occasion of a public lecture, reinforce the tendency to make unsubstantiated judgements about academic work and use these as a basis for new regulatory restrictions and controls.

It cannot be a matter of surprise that the arts and humanities have less interaction (but hardly none) with industry than is the case with science or engineering. However, in my experience they often work closely with the performing arts, with educational bodies, with voluntary organisations, with cultural and tourism bodies, and so forth. Accusing the arts of not working with industry is in some ways like accusing biochemists of not working with the Abbey Theatre.

John Hennessy’s appointment has been welcomed by many, and it is hoped that he will oversee a well judged and effective cooperation with the academic community in Ireland. But it might be better if the patterns of this cooperation were established a little better before he moves to launch public criticism of some sections of higher education without much visible evidence to back it up. I suspect that the arts and humanities can always usefully review their interaction with the wider society, including industry, but it is better to stimulate such a review in a somewhat more sensitive and less caricatured way. I hope that a constructive dialogue will be more typical of what is to come.

The onward march – for now – of the ‘employment control framework’

March 25, 2011

In Ireland the Higher Education Authority has now formally published the new version of the ‘employment control framework’ on its website, and has also issued a set of explanations and statements which produce a very benign interpretation of the terms of the ECF. For example, the statement suggests that promotions are not prohibited by the ECF provided the distribution of junior and senior posts does not change from a December 2010 baseline. The latter statement is welcome, though it would have to be said that it directly contradicts a clear statement in the ECF itself – that there can be no promotions. The reference to the distribution of grades in the ECF applies not to promotions but to the filling of vacancies (see pages 6-7 of the ECF).

The HEA also says in the statement that authorisation will not be required for any appointments; again this is clearly contradicted in the ECF itself (see e.g. first paragraph of section 8 of the ECF).

It is no doubt welcome that the HEA (which cannot in any case be blamed for the ECF) is proposing to apply a reasonable interpretation of the framework. But in the end that will be subject to government instructions and pressures. It seems to me that the position has not changed: the ECF must be revoked.

Repayment of allowances

October 21, 2010

For readers not familiar with recent events in Irish higher education, this is a short summary of one particular development that has prompted a lot of commentary. Over a period of a few years, University College Dublin (UCD) paid allowances and bonuses to a number of senior staff, mainly as a form of incentive payment. Under current rules applying to universities, such payments – i.e. any payments departing from the established public service pay scales to which university salaries are tied – require government approval. The payments in question were made without any such approval, and after lengthy discussions between the Higher Education Authority and UCD the payments were discontinued. The whole thing received some recent attention before the Dail Public Accounts Committee and in an account prepared by the Comptroller and Auditor General.

According to media reports, as part of the follow-up to all this, there are now talks between the HEA and UCD about a repayment to the HEA by the university of these allowances, which apparently came to a total of €1.6 million.

To be perfectly honest, I cannot get my head around this at all. Let us assume that the HEA and the government (and many commentators) are right, and the payments should never have been made. If you adopt that position, then you are saying that €1.6 million that should have been spent on students were in fact spent on allowances for managers. Now that a ‘remedy’ is being discussed, it seems to consist of the HEA requiring a ‘repayment’ of the sum – not by those who received them, but out of general university funds – thereby depriving students of this amount all over again. in other words, if damage was done to student interests, the HEA is insisting that this damage should be doubled. Maybe I’m missing something, but to me this seems bizarre.

I might also add the following. In my time In DCU I made sure that we abided by the rules (which was not always a popular position then), and indeed DCU received no criticism at the PAC meting. I took that position so as not to expose DCU to the kind of controversy we have now seen. But to be perfectly frank, the regulatory framework by which I was abiding is a crazy one. Whether incentive payments are made, and to whom they are made, should be a matter for each university and its governing body. The state is entitled to require that each university can account for how it has spent the money, but provided proper procedures were adopted in terms of governance and overall budgets are not exceeded, these issues should not be a matter for regulation at all.

I think the idea that all incentive payments in universities are inappropriate is wrong-headed – though admittedly I would also be of the view that incentive payments need to be based on the achievement of stretch targets given to the recipient. I think it is time that universities were no longer treated like public bureaucracies.

Higher education and the link to government

July 16, 2009

Right now in the United Kingdom a debate is under way as to whether there is a need for a government agency to stand between the higher education institutions and the government itself. In England this agency is the Higher Education Funding Council for England (Hefce), and there are equivalent bodies in Wales and Scotland; but none in Northern Ireland, where the relationship is a direct one without an intervening agency. According to a report in the journal Times Higher Education, a number of influential think tanks have recommended the abolition of Hefce, while others (including some politicians) have argued for its retention.

This may become a live issue in Ireland also, with a continuing search for rationalisation in the public sector and reviews of regulatory and other agencies (which has led to the existing plan for a merger between HETAC, FETAC and the NQAI).  As a sector, we need to take a view of how the process of distributing public funds should be managed, and how our relationship with government should be structured. In other words, we need to have a coherent view on the role and powers of the Higher Education Authority.

It seems to me that there is a continuing very strong case for the existence of the HEA and for a very significant role for this body. The HEA has been important not just as a distributor of funds, but also as a promoter of analysis and discussion on higher education issues. It has managed, with some considerable integrity, to interpret government to the universities, and the universities to government. The relationship between the institutions and the HEA has been a mature one, in that it has been close but not inter-dependent. Given that the HEA is chronically under-staffed, it is wholly unlikely that any notion of merging it with the Department of Education could save any money, as the tasks would still need to be undertaken; but what would be lost, in all likelihood, would be the capacity to assess and develop the mission of higher education in the public and national interest, as well as the capacity to guide the institutions in a context where the institutions have confidence in the integrity of that process.

I would still take the view I have expressed in the past, however, that the role of the HEA would be better expressed in a name that did not have the word ‘Authority’ in it. The current name reflects a tradition still surviving in Ireland of seeing the state and its agencies as a command structure that exercises control over the lives of citizens. A more appropriate modern concept would see the public service as an enabler and facilitator and guide. Maybe ‘Agency’ would express that better.

PS. The ink had hardly dried on this post (metaphorically, of course), when I read that An Bord Snip (see further posts) is recommending that the HEA be merged into the Department of Education and Science. More on all this later.


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