Posted tagged ‘Higher Educatation Authority’

Gender equality in Irish universities

July 20, 2015

Previous posts in this blog – including a guest post – have pointed to the problem of gender equality in Irish universities, particularly in relation to career development and promotion.  The Higher Education Authority has now appointed a panel, to be chaired by former EU Commissioner Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, to undertake a review into gender profiles and equality across the sector. The panel is due to report within a year.

Opening new universities

September 8, 2014

In a global environment in which countries compete with each other for investment and for migrants with experience and skills, universities are a high value currency. There is little doubt that having a university brings significant benefits to a town, region or country, but only if the university’s credentials are right. Where that is not the case, the existence of a higher education institution of suspect quality or with other inadequacies can actually do some harm.

So if there is a proposal for the establishment of a new university, or for the granting of university status to an existing institution, what criteria should be used? This is currently a live issue in Ireland, where a number of existing institutes of technology (the latest being Athlone) have declared they will use a new statutory framework to apply for the status of a ‘technological university’. The Higher Education Authority, which manages this framework, has now announced the membership of the expert panel that will advise the Authority on ‘the viability and adequacy of plans for the creation of a technological university’ in each case.

This new Irish framework is seriously flawed, not because it allows for the establishment of new universities, but because it assumes that a ‘technological university’ is a recognised distinct type of higher education institution, without really making it clear why there should be such a separate category and without providing necessary assurances that the quality standards are the same as those that would apply to ‘normal’ universities. Most of the criteria are, at least on the face of it, similar to those one would expect any universities to meet. But the whole thing is undermined, and in my view fatally, by the absolute requirement that such applications can only come from what is described as a ‘consolidation of two or more institutions’. Why this should be a condition has never been satisfactorily explained, and it produces the result that one, high quality, institution cannot apply for technological university status, but if it joins another institution of lower quality it becomes eligible. Furthermore, apart from partnerships in the Dublin area, such joint bids will have to come from institutions located in different towns or regions, creating geographically separated multi-campus institutions that will find it very hard to create a coherent joint strategic direction.

A very good case can and should be made for institutional diversity in higher education, and there is not just room, but real demand, for universities that are, as one might put it, closer to the market and focused on the usability of their courses and research. But this should not be subject to different quality thresholds and should not involve the requirement of illogical and perhaps unworkable combinations. There is room for one or more new universities in Ireland; but the government should think again about how this is achieved.

Profiling (or ranking?) universities

January 14, 2014

Right at the end of 2013, while most were still digesting their Christmas dinners and Ireland was more or less closed down, the Higher Education Authority – the funding council of the Irish higher education sector – published a report entitled Towards a Performance Evaluation Framework: Profiling Irish Higher Education.  In his introduction to the report, the HEA’s chief executive, Tom Boland, describes its purpose as follows:

‘The development by the HEA of the institutional profiles presented in this report is intended to support higher education institutions in their strategic performance management in order to maximise the contribution of each both to the formation of a coherent higher education system and to national development. This on-going work is therefore fundamental to the implementation of the national strategy, particularly in respect of the imperative to align institutional strategies and national priorities, and to foster and clarify mission-diversity. Rather than reflecting any desire to instigate a ranking system, this report signals the HEA’s intention to work in partnership with all higher education institutions to ensure that the system as a whole advances the national priorities set out by the Government—for economic renewal, social cohesion and cultural development, public sector reform, and for the restoration and enhancement of Ireland’s international reputation.’

The bulk of the report then contains metrics for each institution, including student data, research performance and financial information. So for example we learn that it costs, on average, €10,243 p.a. to educate a student in an Irish university, with the cost ranging in individual institutions from €8,765 in NUI Maynooth to €11,872 in University College Cork. We also find out that the student/staff ratio in Irish institutions ranges from 19.5:1 in Dublin City University to 30.1:1 in NUI Maynooth. In research terms the institutions’ citation impact ranges from 0.6 in the University of Limerick to 1.7 in Trinity College Dublin, with most other universities clustering around the world average of 1.0.

What does this kind of information tell us? Or more particularly, to what use will it be put? Tom Boland emphasises in the passage quoted above that the intention is not to ‘instigate a ranking system’, though others could of course use the metrics to do just that. It can of course be used, as the HEA suggests, by institutions themselves ‘in their strategic performance management’ (presumably in setting and assessing key performance indicators), or as they also suggest to assess whether institutions are advancing government priorities.

In fact, university ‘profiling’ is all the rage, and not just in Ireland. The European Union’s ‘U-Multirank’ project, which is supposed to go live early this year, is something similar:

‘Based on empirical data U-Multirank will compare institutions with similar institutional profiles and allow users to develop personalised rankings by selecting indicators in terms of their own preferences.’

This too will, or so it seems to me, be an exercise in institutional profiling, presenting metrics that can be used to generate comparisons, i.e. rankings.

I don’t really doubt that as recipients of public money universities should present transparent data as to how this is being spent and what value is being generated by it. But comparisons between institutions based on such data always carry some risk. So for example, DCU’s student/staff ratio looks more favourable because the university has a much larger focus on science and engineering than other Irish universities, and laboratory work requires more staff input. NUI Maynooth is ‘cheap’ because the main bulk of its teaching is in the humanities, which are less resource-intensive. This information may not be immediately obvious to the casual observer, who may therefore be driven to questionable conclusions. Ironically some of these risks are not so prominent in the more mature league tables, such as the Times Higher Education global rankings, which will already have allowed for such factors in their weightings. The raw data are more easily misunderstood.

It seems to me that institutional profiling is not necessarily preferable to rankings. And it could be open to mis-use.

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.

Understanding why students drop out

October 29, 2010

Just over two weeks ago I addressed the problem of student non-completion in this blog. Yesterday Ireland’s Higher Education Authority published a Study of Progression in Irish Higher Education, which set out some of the more detailed data on student drop-outs broken down by institution and by subject. The study is extremely useful, but on the whole it tells us a lot of things we already know, or certainly ought to know: that students with poorer Leaving Certificate (final secondary school examination) results are more likely to drop out of university; that woman are better at completing than men; that difficult programmes of study have a higher rate of attrition; and that institutes of technology have higher drop-out rates than universities. Perhaps less obviously, it also tells us that there is no significant difference in attrition between those from a better-off background and the less well off (though the latter are much less likely to get to university in the first place).

Yesterday afternoon I was invited by Radio Station TodayFM to be a guest, together with the HEA’s Muiris O’Connor, on the late afternoon programme The Last Word with Matt Cooper. In considering the report of this study, and also in assessing the comments made by Muiris O’Connor in explaining it, I was struck by the fact that one absolutely key message was missing: the impact of the CAO points system.

As Irish readers of this blog know, the points system is essentially a market in programmes: if you want to study a popular subject you will need more CAO points than if you are willing to go for one of the less popular ones. The level of difficulty of the programme is neither here nor there; and so because difficult programmes are by their nature less popular, you find bizarrely that you can get on to a difficult course with much worse Leaving Certificate results than you would need for an easier one. That this results in significant attrition rates for difficult programmes is hardly an earth-shattering surprise. What is a surprise, however, is that we know this and do nothing about it. And the reason why we do nothing about it is broadly the same reason why we won’t tackle fees – we are afraid of the wrath of the middle classes, who generally want to pour money into their children’s secondary education and then want them to be professionals rather than scientists, entrepreneurs or artists.

As I have mentioned before, the CAO points system is slowly but surely distorting and corrupting the whole Irish education system. We need to address this urgently. And as they own it, the people who need to tackle the points system head-on are the universities. It is time to act.