Last weekend the Irish newspaper the Sunday Business Post published an article in which it suggested that the report of Colin Hunt’s strategic review of higher education will recommend that there should be new controls by the Higher Education Authority on how universities spend their money and what they spend it on. More precisely, the article said that there would in future be ‘agreed targets’ for each university in a number of contexts, and that some funding would be made contingent on these targets being met.
While this would be a new departure for Ireland, it is not necessarily original thinking. A little earlier this year the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario was asked by the Ontario government to look at ways in which a more ‘differentiated’ university sector could be established. This is the key recommendation of the resulting report:
‘A roadmap is provided indicating how the government can advance the current university system to a more differentiated one. The cornerstone of this transition is a comprehensive agreement between each university and [the relevant state agency] identifying the expectations and accountabilities of each institution including its expected enrolment and student mix, its priority teaching and research programs and areas for future growth and development. In contrast to the practice with the current multi‐year accountability process, incremental funding to the institution would be aligned with its mission agreement, annual progress would be evaluated using an agreed‐upon set of performance indicators, and institutional funding would be continued or removed based on progress towards agreed‐upon goals and targets.’
It would be foolish to dismiss the idea that a degree of differentiation or specialisation of institutions might be a viable strategy, whether in Ontario or Ireland. But the model being contemplated may be more a bureaucratic one than a strategic one, and would establish the idea that central direction of higher education is a winner. It is likely that the resulting system would be administratively cumbersome rather than strategically effective. It would also completely undermine the concept of university autonomy.
I would agree with the idea that the universities themselves should consider ways in which sector-wide collaboration in order to avoid unnecessary duplication could be achieved. But I would be of the view that a new bureaucratic state-run mechanism to enforce specialisation would be wholly counter-productive and would tend to compromise initiative and innovation. Let’s not do that.