Posted tagged ‘Higher Education Funding Council for England’

Higher education funding crisis: not just in Ireland

November 23, 2009

As we prepare for what is universally expected to be bad news for higher education in the coming Budget/Book of Estimates, we may or may not find consolation in the fact that there are similar fears in England. Last Friday Sir Alan Langlands, chief executive of the Higher Education Funding Council for England (HEFCE), suggested that a ‘golden age’ for university funding and development was now coming to an end, and that universities in England were ‘going to see a rebalancing of financial contributions to higher education from the tax payer, from students, from graduates and from employers.’ From the context of the story, I gather that ‘rebalancing’ does not mean a redistribution of the same funding between these different sources, but rather an overall (and perhaps severe) reduction.

In Ireland as in the UK, we shall have to ask some fundamental questions; but the most obvious one seems to me to be whether we can continue to aim for significant increases in higher education participation rates in these circumstances. This latter question is also tied up with the issue of whether we can aim to maintain a position in the global rankings if we continue to pursue volume growth but without resources. Even if we feel that the rankings don’t matter, we need to remember that on the whole they reflect quality-driven performance indicators, so that the implication of sliding down the tables is that quality is eroding.

I personally support the highest possible participation levels, subject to adequate entry qualifications; but it may realistically not be possible to continue with that agenda for now.

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.