Posted tagged ‘higher education reform’

The new world of higher education: a ‘supply side revolution’?

May 16, 2011

For those grappling with the question of what exactly the British government wants to achieve in higher education, here is the answer offered by Daily Telegraph pundit Benedict Brogan, who is thought to have access to Downing Street thinking. What Universities Minister David Willetts, backed by David Cameron, is wanting to introduce, he says, is a ‘supply side revolution’. If you need to stop and think what that actually means, let me draw it out briefly. ‘Supply side’ is an economists’ perspective that suggests that growth will be maximised if barriers to production are lowered, and if restrictions are removed (such as tax, regulation and so forth).

Applied to higher education, this could mean removing restrictions stopping universities from recruiting as many students as they can accommodate. In his blog Brogan suggests that the following is intended:

‘The idea, as I initially heard it, was to consider easing the cap on admissions at the upper level by allowing the top establishments charging the full £9000 to let in more top students – those scoring 2 As and B minimum – than they currently are allowed to. And I’m told another change being contemplated would lift the admissions cap on those universities serving the cheaper end of the market. New institutions inexpensive two year degrees, for example, would be free to allow as many students in as they could cope with.’

How such reforms would work in terms of public funding and public borrowing is not immediately easy to see, unless the government were to adopt policies that would impose no burden on the taxpayer by these universities admitting larger numbers of students. Furthermore, what would happen to the universities in the middle ground who are thought to be neither ‘top establishments’ nor on the ‘cheaper end of the market’? And how could this scheme be arranged without having the ‘top establishments’ also become socially elite institutions largely catering for the rich?

However, if there is a major policy perspective that lies at the heart of the British government decision-making (which for now merely looks chaotic), then it might be a good idea to articulate it clearly rather than releasing it via a journalist’s blog (however important we might think blogs to be). One must presume that it may be stated more clearly in the much delayed White Paper.

A world apart but bound together (Steven Schwartz)

April 12, 2011

This post is written by Professor Steven Schwartz, Vice-Chancellor of Macquarie University in Sydney (and former Vice-Chancellor of Brunel University in England). He has for many years been a forthright leader in higher education debate, and is the author of a widely read blog. As part of the process of provoking discussion across international boundaries, Steven and I agreed to exchange blog posts, and this is his contribution.

Some 16,728.62 kilometres (10,394.97 miles in Brit measure) separate the Granite and Emerald cities. They are a world apart, Aberdeen shivering in the North Sea haar, Sydney basking in the blue Pacific warmth. There are no stovies, haggis or bridies in Sydney but Aberdonians don’t know what it’s like to tuck into a pavlova, or a lamington or to smear vegemite on their morning toast (poor souls).

Despite the huge differences, and the vast distances between them, something ancient and abiding binds Macquarie University in Sydney with Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen.

Both share the same heritage: descendents of the first European universities, Bologna, Oxford, Cambridge, Montpellier, born some 800 years ago in a theocratic world – long before the Enlightenment paved the way for the dominance of science and logical positivism.

For almost 700 years, universities upheld Plato’s idea that education’s purpose was to forge character so graduates could take up their role in their society and contribute to the good of everyone.  (“But if you ask what is the good of education, the answer is easy: that education makes good men and that good men act nobly”.)

As recently as the 19th century universities set morality and ethics at the centre of their teaching, usually by inculcating religious precepts. The recently beatified Cardinal Newman—darling to common rooms across the world—wrote in 1854 that a professor should be “a missionary and a preacher”.

The decline in religion and the rise of cultural relativism made it increasingly difficult for universities to maintain their traditional mission. Still, it was necessary to have some mission and many universities took their lead from Benjamin Disraeli who, foreshadowing the secular new age, declared that a university should be “a place of light, of liberty, and of learning”.

Alas, we rarely hear much about character or liberty or wisdom in today’s halls of academe. The current view of what universities are for is strictly utilitarian. Universities are all about money. According to the Australian chief scientist, universities are “huge generators of wealth creation”, which exist to provide employers with work-ready graduates and to drive exports. As the Australian government puts it, higher education’s purpose is to create “the most skilled economy and the best trained workforce in the world” and to make discoveries that can be commercialised.

According to James Engell and Anthony Dangerfield, authors of Saving Higher Education in the Age of Money, the role of money in universities has been inverted. Money was once necessary to subsidise teaching and assist research. Today, we offer courses and conduct research in order to make money. What was once a means has become and end.

This inversion presents a challenging dilemma for those of us charged with leading a university. In the age of money, we must deliver job-ready graduates and impactful research but we must also try to maintain and advance academe’s hallowed mission of teaching, learning, research, and to be the preserver and transmitter of scholarship and knowledge.

Resistance is futile.

In Lampedusa’s novel, The Leopard,  Prince Tancredi begs Don Fabrizio to accept some political change to avoid a complete upheaval.  In Tancredi’s words” “If we want things to stay as they are, things will have to change”.

Universities are in the same situation.

From Aberdeen to Sydney and most places in between, universities remain in thrall to the agrarian-era legacy—long holidays (for crop gathering, sowing and planting) and cumbersome governance structures. Yet, our students and our circumstances have changed dramatically. Our students are not required to do farm labour and our societies can no longer afford our languid approach to teaching.  Governments (more accurately, tax payers) cannot afford it and neither can students.

Australian students already pay high fees (through the Higher Education Contribution Scheme) and they have a consumer’s demand for value and efficient and timely delivery of services. Forty per cent are mature aged and often in full time work.  Most arrive with ingrained technological skills: computers, mobile devices, apps and social networking are second nature. To reach them, we in universities must quickly embrace new technologies, teaching methods, and make better use of the time available in a year. Our job is not to “lecture” but to ensure that students learn. It is time we admitted that these are not the same thing.

Clearly, we will have to deliver the education that society needs and this must include preparation for the world of work.  But disciplines advance so quickly. In medicine, for example, new drugs, instruments and techniques are constantly being invented. Some revolutionise treatment and many challenge the conventional wisdom.  Medical schools teach skills – but many of these are obsolete a few years after graduation. Skills alone are not enough.

No one can predict how knowledge will evolve, so graduates in any field need to know how to keep learning long after they leave university.  Rather than teach students what to think, universities must remain true to their heritage and help them to learn how to think.

Graduates also need to be given a chance to follow the Delphic oracle’s command to “know thyself”, which must involve exposure to the great works of our, and others’, cultures.

A university education ought to produce educated men and women who understand the world, the culture in which they will live, and their place in it.  All this may be difficult to achieve for every student in every course in every university, but it should nonetheless be our aim.

Someone once said that a university is a rare, delicate, antique crystal bowl. The institution’s leader is entrusted with the bowl for a period of time and is given the task of carrying it through a maze of slippery corridors. The leader can take many different routes through the maze—the route makes no difference. There is only one requirement for success; the leader must never drop the bowl.


Why do our politicians not understand higher education? What can we do about it?

March 8, 2011

As noted yesterday, in Ireland a new government not even yet in office has set out its higher education stall, and from an academic perspective it isn’t pretty. There are no signs in the Fine Gael/Labour programme for government (Government for National Recovery 2011-2016) that the parties put much thought into the higher education elements, and it appears that are influenced by the general view that universities and colleges need to be centrally coordinated and controlled, and that the traditional way of arranging academic work and careers won’t do any more.

But Irish politicians are not unique. Across the English-speaking world in particular right now, governments are discovering a new enthusiasm to intervene directly in higher education. Partly this may be a product of the recession, as governments cannot afford to fund colleges, but feel they need to be seen to be ‘doing something’ about them. At that point it is particularly attractive to suggest that the institutions don’t need so much money anyway, and that with proper state supervision they can make big savings.

Ironically this trend of bureaucratisation as we experience it here is the opposite of what is happening in countries that in the past used to exercise tighter controls. In places as diverse as Germany and China restrictions are being lifted, in the belief that more autonomous universities perform better. Universities are being encouraged to determine their own focus and direction, and to plan strategically.

In the meantime, over here governments appear to believe that what has been holding back the universities is too little control. So the politicians and officials want to determine the shape of the sector, the correct number of institutions, the appropriate terms and conditions of academic and other employment, the academic areas they should address, and the search for sources of income other than the taxpayer. They believe that there needs to be more accountability, by which they actually mean more reviews, audits and paperwork. They feel that public criticism of universities encourages them to be more excellent. And they believe all of this without ever feeling the need to present a shred of evidence to support it beyond a few anecdotes.

So, are the universities all helpless victims of political myopia? No, that’s too simplistic. In many ways they have reinforced these beliefs, though perhaps not deliberately or consciously. Top of the list of opportunities missed has been their reluctance to be more transparent. Ask a university representative how many hours staff work, or what the money is being spent on, or what standards today’s students achieve, or what the impact of university research is for society, and chances are you’ll get a complex and often impenetrable response. But nowadays everyone wants to have everything measured, while universities have often preferred a kind of intellectual vagueness. This is the age of accountability, and if you look like the one group in society that wants to escape from that, you will come under attack.

Also, if governments sometimes have unrealistic expectations of universities as instruments of economics and trade, some academics can come across as unnecessarily hostile to the idea that universities stimulate economic growth and investment. Of course university programmes should not be designed just to meet an economic agenda, but equally it is clear that universities, sometimes just by being there, are engines of growth – something that should be welcomed.

Politicians will determine our fate. We need to work with them, and to negotiate a modus vivendi with them. If we say, rightly, that policy needs to be formulated on the back of evidence, we too must be prepared to provide it. It is time for the academic community to be more effective in its own defence, so that the conditions that really do generate excellence can be protected, alongside the change and reform that we also need to contemplate. And once we do that, it is time for the politicians to listen.

“Public gathering” called on academic freedom

January 20, 2011

The Irish academic news resource website, 9thlevelireland, yesterday carried a letter signed by 160 academics calling for a meeting to discuss threats, as the signatories see it, to academic freedom across Irish higher education. This meeting, which is described as being ‘open to all academics’, is to be held on Saturday, January 22, at 2pm, in the Gresham Hotel in Dublin.

The initiative for this was taken by Paddy Healy, a lecturer in the Dublin Institute of Technology and a former President of the Teachers Union of Ireland, which inter alia organises staff in the Institutes of Technology. In his blog he has expanded on the reasons for his fears concerning academic freedom. These are based principally on the agreement reached last year between the Irish government and the public sector trade unions (the Croke Park agreement), under which various changes in working practice and in contracts of employment are to be negotiated. In the blog Paddy Healy publishes a document said to have been issued by NUI Galway setting out proposed changes and reforms. As far as I am aware, the university has not made any public comment on this, so I cannot say whether the document represents its position, or what its aims are in any negotiations that may be taking place. But if we take the document at face value, it clearly envisages a very different kind of employment contract and higher levels of staff flexibility.

From what I can gather, the process of initiating the reform processes envisaged under the Croke Park agreement has been left by the Irish Universities Association to individual institutions, and there is no sector-wide position on what changes might be involved. This may be a risky approach, and it would be hard to imagine that very different contractual frameworks or terms of employment could be sustained between the Irish universities and colleges. Not having a common approach also makes it difficult to avoid rumours and fears circulating through the system. I cannot help feeling that a more open, nation-wide discussion process would make more sense.

On the other hand, it would also be a mistake for academics to resist all change, or to allow the impression to emerge that this is their position. There continue to be very good reasons for preserving intellectual autonomy and academic freedom, but academics must also be aware of, and show sensitivity to, the general movement towards greater accountability in society. The risk is always that accountability is seen as meaning bureaucratic control, and to avoid that being the result of current reforms academics, like the universities, need to engage in constructive discussions. As part of this process, resistance to measures such as measuring of full economic costs is hugely counter-productive and damaging to the staff position. A radicalisation of these discussions on either side can easily prompt wider public hostility towards higher education, an outcome that would put the entire system at risk.

All parties involved in this should proceed with some care, and with as much openness as possible. Rumour is the enemy of success.

Hunt: key principles of higher education strategy

January 12, 2011

Now that the Hunt report (National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030) has been formally published, a larger number of stakeholders and organisations have offered an initial view of its merits. It would be fair to say that some of the later evaluations have been more supportive. So for example, IBEC (the Irish Business and Employers Confederation) issued a statement saying it ‘welcomed the broad direction for change set out in the National Strategy for Higher Education’. Labour Party Education spokesperson Ruairi Quinn expressed doubts about the financing and funding elements of the report, but otherwise broadly welcomed the recommendations. Perhaps most significantly, the Irish Universities Association (IUA) has issued a statement concluding with the following:

‘The Strategy Report brings a much needed conceptual and strategic perspective to the development of our system overall. As the report acknowledges, implementation can only happen through engagement and we look forward to working with government to deliver this.’

So does the Hunt report indeed inject, in the IUA’s words, a ‘conceptual and strategic perspective’? And if so, what is it? In my previous analysis (at the time when the Irish Times had released a draft version of the report) I had suggested that the vision of the report was of a more tightly controlled and centrally managed higher education system. Would the universities want to welcome that? Maybe I was wrong in my reading of the report?

Let us go back, as I did the first time, to the ‘high level objectives’ set out in the report (now on page 27), since one might expect these to reflect the group’s vision. There are six of them, and I am going to suggest that each one contains two key adjectives that explain the principle identified by the group for the relevant objective. Seen in this way, the twelve key words are (1) ‘excellent’ and ‘accessible’; (2) ‘relevant’ and ‘responsive’; (3) ‘international’ and ‘aligned’; (4)  ‘autonomous’ and ‘accountable’; (5) ‘coherent’ and ‘inter-related’; (6) ‘national’ and ‘sustainable’.

As one might have expected, many commentators and the media have latched on to the funding and student contribution elements of the report, but I’ll buck the trend and say that these don’t matter at all, except to the extent that this is one more report (amongst dozens) that agrees that Irish higher education is under-funded. We knew that, and whether anyone does anything about it won’t depend on Hunt, but will be dictated by political considerations after the election. In terms of what actually happens on the financial and resourcing side, Hunt doesn’t matter one bit. Even the Tánaiste, when interviewed on RTE, suggested that this was an issue for further analysis based on the earlier plans drawn up a year or two ago by then Minister for Education Batt O’Keeffe.

So if it’s not about fees, what is it about? Well, going back to the key words, and taking away the ones that are really just waffle (like ‘excellent’ and ‘international’), you are left with a very clear picture: Hunt is about providing a new focused direction for higher education. That could be good or bad, depending on what it means in more detail and how it is implemented. Yesterday’s buzzword amongst those broadly welcoming Hunt was ‘accountable’, also one of our key words here. This in turn is based on the idea that higher education has been spending money without adequately explaining what it has been doing with it, and with the added suggestion that it has been wasteful and inefficient, and that it has tolerated under-performance. Ruairi Quinn, in another interview, tellingly used the word ‘inputs’ – that there needed to be greater control over the resources and activities of universities and colleges. That chimes totally with the Hunt report, which is in fact all about inputs, and hardly about impact or outputs.

And yet, when there is some reference in passing to outputs, it seems to tell a rather positive story; for example, this passage (page 29):

‘The Irish higher education system has served Irish society well in recent decades, as it responded to changes in the social, economic and cultural environment. It has provided society with the knowledge and skills needed to negotiate the changing global landscape, where new understandings, new challenges and new technologies are daily changing the realities we face and our relationships with the world and it has opened new opportunities for personal development and advancement to a generation of citizens.The high-calibre graduates produced by the higher education system have been critical to the development of high-technology indigenous industry and to the attraction of very substantial foreign direct investment into the country, resulting in the creation of high-quality, well-paid employment, economic growth, and a higher standard of living.’

Oddly, this apparent hymn to Irish higher education is followed by the assertion that ‘what has served us well in the past will not serve us well in the future without significant change.’ And the reason for that? ‘Our success in the recent past was based on the application of knowledge that was developed elsewhere. In the years ahead, we will increasingly have to be knowledge creators ourselves.’ Really? What evidence is there for that? In the distant past, absolutely; but in the ‘recent past’ Irish universities have developed hugely successful research partnerships and innovative teaching programmes that have led rather than followed.

What am I concluding? The Hunt group, for whatever reasons, declined to commission its own research, so its work has been based on the submissions made to it and whatever occurred to its members. From what we can now read, it seems to have persuaded itself that there is a problem with higher education, and that this problem is all about its structural looseness and its uncontrolled development. Apart from assertions like the one I have just quoted, it offers no actual evidence for this; but it does offer a proposed bells-and-whistles solution that will make strategy a national rather than institutional concern. Creativity in knowledge development will be the task of a national body, and the institutions will be the agencies to which it contracts out the implementation. OK, that’s a tendentious way of putting it, but I think it’s close to the mark.

I need to balance what I have written here. I am not suggesting that everything in Hunt is all bad. The report is worth reading carefully, and it contains sensible and worthwhile suggestions in a number of contexts. Its concern for a more rational system taking account of national needs is not misplaced, even if I think its remedy is quite wrong. Its call for reform in structures and actions is not unreasonable. But its work is set in a context where politicians, officials and commentators, unmolested by facts or evidence, had been shouting about under-performance and inefficiency, and you cannot quite help feeling that this was taken as the starting point on which the detailed work was then based, rather than the other way round.

Now that it’s there, I don’t think we should just dismiss the Hunt Report. But we need to pick apart the bits that have substance and sense, and those that are misguided. But above all, we need to persuade our stakeholders that no national university system, ever, improved its performance by letting the state control it more. Higher educational excellence by centralised target setting? No, absolutely not. If I were wrong in that, the Soviet Union would be even today be wowing the world with the triumphs of its five-year plans. So let us look constructively at what Hunt says, and let us accept that further change and reform – even radical change and reform – is necessary. Let us agree that we need to be accountable, and that we need to be able to demonstrate (as sometimes we are not) that the outputs of our system are really excellent. But let us not conclude that this can be done by perfecting new centralised control mechanisms.


PS. Over the next week I shall also focus on one or two recommendations made in the Hunt Report which I believe are sensible and should be implemented.

Irish higher education and a strategic purpose

January 11, 2011

As I write this on the morning of January 11, we are awaiting the formal launch of the report by Dr Colin Hunt’s group on higher education strategy. Just now, if you go to the website of the Department of Education and Skills, and click on the link headed ‘Strategy for Higher Education’, you get a page that tells you that there is an ‘error’ and that the ‘object is not found’. But what is the ‘object’? Presumably a clear vision for the future of Irish higher education.

The early criticisms of the not-yet-published report, including the latest (by my successor as DCU President, Professor Brian MacCraith), all tend to point out that the report lacks a clear strategic focus, or a vision about the future direction of Irish higher education. There is also an early stream of criticism by trade unions.

As I have noted previously, my own view is that the report has avoided pedagogy and scholarly insight for a framework of bureaucratic oversight. It is not too late for those launching the report to indicate that there is a better, more compelling vision underlying it. Let us see what is said today.

PS. The link from the Department website has now been changed (at midday) – though now, rather than linking to the (now published) report, it just links to the HEA home page.

Hunt report: towards a national strategy?

January 7, 2011

Thanks to the Irish Times, we now have a full draft of the Hunt Report (National Strategy for Higher Education) in the public domain. And we know one or two other interesting things. According to the Times, the government’s intention was to publish the report next Tuesday (an event perhaps now destined to be something of an anti-climax); but we also know, from the letter by Colin Hunt to the Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister, and Minister for Education and Skills) copied in the report, that the draft version was submitted to the government on August 9, 2010, a full five months ago. What on earth has been going on since then, and why has it taken so long to decide to publish?

Over the next few days, it will perhaps be worthwhile looking at one or two chapters of the report and the associated recommendations. But at the outset it is always useful to look for the key principles, or the big idea, under-pinning the vision of the document. In fact, there is a page in the report with the heading ‘The Vision for Higher Education in Ireland’ (page 15). One could read this and conclude that there is no specific vision other than that everything in higher education should be Very Good; but that would be a mistake. Those who have suggested that there is no vision in this document are, I believe, wrong. There is a vision. But it is not one to which I would easily subscribe.

The key element of the Hunt group’s vision consists of the belief that higher education works best when it works to as coordinated agenda. This is contained in the final ‘high level objective’ of the report:

‘The policy framework for higher education will make national expectations clear. The objectives and operations of the institutions and those of the funding and quality agencies will be mutually aligned, and will be underpinned by a sustainable funding model and clearly defined structures for system governance and accountability.’

A little further on the report states that the key issues to be addressed in higher education reform are ‘system structure, flexibility and resourcing’. In other words, the major idea in the report is that there should be a centrally determined national strategy for higher education, and a set of structures to ensure that this gets implemented by the higher education institutions. The report also emphasises institutional autonomy, and this might seem a little tricky in the light of the main objective, until you get to see what the authors think autonomy actually means. Here’s a key passage in chapter 7:

‘There is a balance between autonomy and accountability. At the heart of this strategy is the recognition that a diverse range of strong, autonomous institutions is essential if the overall system is to respond effectively to evolving and unpredictable societal needs. Funding and operational autonomy must, however, be matched by a corresponding level of accountability for performance against clearly articulated expectations. This requires well-developed structures to enable national priorities to be identified and communicated, as well as strong mechanisms for ongoing review and evaluation of performance at system and institutional levels. The latter requires the introduction of a strategic dialogue between institutions and the State.’

The most important word in the above extract is the adjective ‘operational’, qualifying ‘autonomy’. What the group believes is that the determination of a strategic vision is a matter for the state and its agencies, and is not part of the toolkit of institutional autonomy. What, in their view, makes the institutions ‘autonomous’ is not strategic choice, but their freedom to take operational decisions in implementing the national strategy. It is managerial freedom rather than strategic autonomy. Indeed this view was confirmed to me at a meeting I attended as university president with the group, at which my suggestion that university autonomy implied a right to determine the strategic vision was met with considerable surprise by members of the Hunt group.

This, therefore, is the ‘big idea’ of the report. It is the view that a small country like Ireland cannot afford to have a diversity of uncontrolled institutional missions. In many ways this is an understandable view, particularly when you bear in mind the composition of the Hunt group. If scarce resources are to be spent, in increasing amounts, on higher education, then the money should be focused on national objectives. In that view it might make sense to let the government determine a national strategy and to task a strong national agency – the Higher Education Authority – with the implementation of that strategy through negotiations with the individual universities and colleges. The latter then become agencies themselves, part of a wider national framework.

The flaw in this vision is that it doesn’t work. Universities are at their most innovative and creative when they are allowed to pursue their own vision. So for example, the current German government is busily changing the post-War framework of universities as coordinated government agencies and giving them higher levels of strategic autonomy exactly because the ‘agency’ model has made them under-perform in global terms. American universities became the global leaders they now are from the moment that they were allowed to escape from bureaucratic controls. There is no evidence from anywhere that a centralised coordination of institutional strategies creates wider benefits for society.

On the other hand, there is a strong case for greater focus in a small country like Ireland, and it is not unreasonable to allow some public funding to be used to secure that. However, to make that work the model would have to be much more collaborative rather than directive.

The Hunt report is based on the view that what Ireland lacks in its higher education system is central planning. This, when you read through the details of the report, is its big idea. It confuses ‘autonomy’ with the devolution of managerial powers, and in the process under-estimates the significance of universities as creative knowledge organisations with the capacity to drive strategy rather than just follow it. The report recognises the importance of Ireland’s higher education system and the significance of coordination, but heads for the default option of bureaucratisation. In this sense it represents a missed opportunity, and also introduces a major risk into the system.

The Hunt report – which I had hoped might be subjected to some more discussion and consultation (and research) before publication – is now there and we must engage with it. It may of course not survive the coming political changes. But a wise approach by the higher education system would be to accept some of the broader concerns it expresses, but to push for a different solution.

Interesting times for English universities

November 27, 2010

Over the past few days, the British Minister of State for Universities and Science has been making various statements designed to map out the future direction of English higher education. On November 3 he made a statement to the House of Commons in which he explained the government’s decision to allow an increase in tuition fees, without lifting the cap completely. The standard ceiling will now be £6,000, with fees ‘n ‘exceptional cases’ permitted up to £9,000. This will not take the form of a payment on entry, but rather a repayment on graduation after pay exceeds a threshold of £21,000. He explained the payment system as follows:

‘We are also proposing a more progressive repayment structure. At present graduates start repaying when their income reaches £15,000. We will increase the repayment threshold to £21,000, and will thereafter increase it periodically to reflect earnings. The repayment will be 9% of income above £21,000, and all outstanding repayments will be written off after 30 years. Raising the threshold reduces the monthly repayments for every single graduate.’

Then the minister also addressed a meeting of Universities UK in which he explained that the upper cap of £9,000 would only apply where universities made special access arrangements for disadvantaged students. Interestingly, the minister also laid emphasis on his desire to have private higher education providers enter the market, and for growth in higher education provision by further education colleges. He described the new world of higher education as follows:

‘First of all there is a serious requirement of widening access. Secondly, universities shouldn’t underestimate the competitive challenge they will face. I have a stream of new providers who believe that there is potential to offer an alternative. I believe that the challenge for universities is to look very carefully at their costs, not simply assume [they can] take today’s costs and put them into the new world.’

Clearly the British government intends to change English higher education quite fundamentally. It is still too early to see for sure how the changes will look, but clearly there will be a major emphasis on competition, both between institutions and between types of institutions. Whether the system can flourish on that basis rather remains to be seen.

Higher education principles and values

November 2, 2010

Back in Ireland, amidst all the noise created by speculation about possible student registration charge hikes, or their replacement by something different, it would be easy to forget why we are concerned about higher education at all. It is clear that it has become a political football, and while at one level this may help to increase public interest and media attention, overall it is questionable whether the debate is helping to focus minds on what matters about our universities and colleges.

In all of the coverage of higher education issues, very little has been said about why it matters. This is being aggravated by the absence of any position of principle around the registration charge issue. According to a report in the Irish Times, Green Party spokesman on education, Paul Gogarty TD, warned that the party’s ‘educational commitments’ could not be compromised. But if you search for what these ‘commitments’ might be, they appear to extend no further than opposition to tuition fees. Even if you accept the party’s position on that issue, it cannot be said to amount to an overall perspective on higher education; that seems to be curiously lacking. The same is true of most of the political debate around the subject, and the position of most of the parties. Furthermore, these limitations of educational policy formulation have, I fear, infected the strategic reviews of higher education, which seem to focus on process issues rather than pedagogy, scholarship or values. A consequence of this focus is that the contribution that higher education makes to national prosperity and well-being is hardly recognised at all, and often the political commentary is, frankly, somewhat ignorant.

But the stakes are very high, and go far beyond the limited analysis we see presented in public.  One interesting angle might be to look at concerns currently being expressed in the United States about the future of the US knowledge sector, particularly in the light of strong advances currently being made in China. As recently as the late 1990s a review of American and Chinese R&D was able to point to the ‘excellence of the US university system’ as a basis for confidence that American technology would continue to lead, even in the context of China’s economic development. By the current year this sense of confidence has gone, and recent reports have suggested that US leadership may be at risk as China continues to invest aggressively. If this happens it will not just be a question of whose universities are winning, it will have an impact on economic growth and development, cultural leadership, political influence and so forth. Universities are key to stability, growth and innovation.

Balancing the books is of course vital during a recession, but it is not the only issue. Politicians who take views on higher education funding, or working methods, or structures, or governance, or accountability are saying nothing worth noting if they do not understand what higher education really does and why that matters. The quality of the Irish higher education debate needs to improve, and to improve fast.

Incentivising completion

October 30, 2010

According to a report in the Irish Independent newspaper, Irish higher education institutions will, under the framework of reforms to be recommended in the strategic review presided over by Dr Colin Hunt, have to agree various targets on a regular basis with the Higher Education Authority, and that the latter will be entitled to impose financial penalties if any of these targets are not met. One of the likely targets will be an agreed student completion rate. More specifically, this is how the Independent describes the proposed framework:

‘Under a new funding system, colleges will receive reduced ‘core’ grants from the Exchequer. They will then be offered financial ‘incentives’ to meet targets in areas such as the retention of students, the rate of course completion, increasing access to college, teaching standards and research. If they fail to meet these targets, they will face financial penalties.’

In this blog we have already discussed the desirability or otherwise of a centrally coordinated planning process for higher education and the concept of performance targets. There is however a specific issue with student retention as a performance target. Any such target can easily be met by lowering the demands made by programmes of study, or moderating the severity of marking and assessment.

In any case, as nobody seems to have observed, there is already a distinct financial penalty for student non-completion. A student who drops out will cause an immediate financial loss, because his or her fees (as paid by the state) and their part of the recurrent grant disappears. In fact, student attrition creates severe financial problems for the institutions. If in addition to that the HEA were to impose a penalty and withdraw further funds, this will directly lead to a lowering of quality of provision for those students who remain, and I cannot even begin to understand how that would be a good idea.

All of this adds to my impression that we are facing a ‘reform’ agenda in Ireland that is largely misconceived and is based on the belief that what the system lacks is regulation and structure. In fact, what the system lacks is a sufficiently well developed position on pedagogy and scholarship, but that gap is likely to widen as a new system of tight controls emerges. These controls are likely to create major educational quality risks, but this is not being sufficiently articulated by the universities. There may be dangerous times ahead.