Posted tagged ‘higher education strategy’

Charting higher education’s future

June 11, 2013

If your particular interest is reports on the future of higher education, you will not be starved of material. All over the developed world in particular there have over recent years been numerous inquiries into higher education strategy. Some of these have been influential – perhaps the Review of Australian Higher Education (chaired by Denise Bradley) is a particular example; while others may have somewhat disappointing, such as Ireland’s National Strategy for Higher Education (the Hunt Report), which focused largely on organisation and structure.

The most recent offering in this genre is provided by the UK’s Institute for Public Policy Research, an independent think tank considered to be close to the political centre left. In 2012 the IPPR established a rather grandly named ‘Commission on the Future of Higher Education’, chaired by the Vice-Chancellor of the University of Warwick, Professor Nigel Thrift. Its terms of reference included an analysis of the purpose of higher education, the ‘mix of higher education institutions’, the role higher education can play in promoting ‘sustainable economic growth’, and higher education funding. The group decided to focus their analysis on England, recognising that other parts of the United Kingdom had gone rather different ways.

The commission has now issued its report (A Critical Path). Covering 156 pages, the document sets out a significant number of recommendations on a variety of issues. The members of the group have attempted to set these within the context of five overarching principles: (a) higher education institutions must be disinterested producers of knowledge; (b) higher education institutions must nurture sceptical and informed citizens; (c) higher education institutions must promote the public good; (d) higher education institutions must expand opportunity: and (e) higher education institutions must further national economic renewal.  Apart perhaps from some argument as to what the last of these principles might mean, all of these would probably be regarded by most members of the higher education community as self-evidently correct; they don’t rattle any cages or suggest any surprising departures. In other words, they don’t particularly serve as challenging questions for society or for the academy.

This in turn may deprive what is actually an interesting report of public awareness or excitement. Public reaction has been low key, even amongst higher education followers; there was for example hardly any Twitter discussion. Without perhaps much of a strategic steer, media interest zoomed in on just one (and somewhat peripheral) recommendation, the possible re-establishment of polytechnics in England.

So what are the real themes of the report? It is not easy to distil these from the large and varied number of recommendations, but some elements that do stand out are the commission’s concern to ensure that higher education participation is maintained and, over time, increased; that vocational education provision is developed within the system; that research and development continues to be funded on an ambitious scale; that access for the disadvantaged is promoted; that technology-enabled learning is grown; and that funding keeps the system in a sustainable state. None of these are bad or undesirable recommendations, but perhaps too many of them skirt around territory that could be described as obvious or not unexpected. They probably will not change general perceptions or expectations, and so may not influence strategic thinking unduly.

Most observers of higher education expect the coming era to be one of disruptive and challenging change. We know that technology will challenge pedagogical and organisational assumptions. We know that learners will lead different lives from those that my generation experienced. We know that old funding models will struggle to satisfy resourcing needs. We know that external stakeholders will want to harness the academy’s intellectual property in new ways. We know that tolerance for educational exclusion will diminish.

But we don’t know whether these trends and influences will overhaul and change a still coherent higher education system, or whether they will produce far more varied institutions, or what what any of these will look like. Higher education planning has already, I think, factored in most of the points made by the IPPR Commission; the current uncertainty is driven by opportunities, risks and challenges going somewhat beyond these.

Every contribution to the higher education debate is valuable, and this report is no exception. But it probably will not change the nature or tone of the debate.


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.

Opening or closing down the big higher education debate?

May 31, 2011

For anyone interested in assessing the options for higher education development, this could be a golden age. All over the developed world governments, major interest groups in society and the academy itself are voicing concern about the vitality or sustainability of the higher education sector, and are offering a bewildering array of solutions. These range from ‘as we were’, but with rather more money, to somewhat more exotic market-driven (or apparently so) ideas. All of this is backed up (or made more confusing) by position papers, discussion documents, articles and speeches.

Nobody knows where all of this is going. Indeed how could they, as the common feature of almost every assessment is a belief that something (though not necessarily the same something) is badly wrong and change is urgent; but there is no consensus as to what that change should be. There isn’t even a consensus as to what options should be on the menu. Actually, there isn’t a consensus as to what higher education really really is nowadays.

Various academic commentators (not excluding this one) write about how low morale is, and how academics feel they are under attack from all quarters. But maybe that isn’t the real problem: what makes it all so difficult is that it is so overwhelmingly chaotic.  I don’t mean that there are too many competing views: there’s nothing wrong with a competition of ideas. Rather, I mean that those devising public policy seem at sea, jumping this way and that at a moment’s notice, and all too often appearing to present budgetary solutions masquerading as education policy. So perhaps not a golden age.

One politician chucking ideas around like confetti at a wedding is the English Universities Minister, David Willetts. He is a member of a somewhat volatile government many of whose fault lines run under the higher education landscape. Almost every suggestion for change coming from the Cameron/Clegg administration has the potential to derail the coalition, before you even get to the effect it may or may not have on the education system itself. Most recently Mr Willetts came under fire from all sorts of quarters, including it would seem from his Prime Minister, for suggesting that off-quota student places could be sold off for a profit as a way of bringing extra cash into the universities. The howls of opposition (or derision) had closed down the idea between breakfast and lunch on the same day. Quickly the message was put out that the Minister had been misunderstood, and the discussion was shelved.

In some circles this shutdown of the debate generated unease. The Vice-Chancellor of the University of Southampton, Don Nutbeam, wrote in the journal Times Higher Education:

‘Willetts should be encouraged, not punished, for testing ideas in public, however radical they may be. Every time debate is closed down, we lose an opportunity to examine and test more fully the implications of the government’s direction in higher education policy, and its overall coherence.’

In the same issue of THE the editor, Ann Mroz, asked in an editorial why we are ‘so hostile to one who attempts to enlist rational debate to find solutions’ and wondered whether this response from the academic community placed them at risk of having reform forced upon them without the opportunity to influence it.

In general terms these are very reasonable comments. Intellectual debate is not won by those who shout loudest but by those who present a well argued analysis with compelling evidence. As I understand Don Nutbeam and Ann Mroz, they both had strong doubts about the Minister’s proposals but felt that the academy’s response should have focused on the arguments rather than heap abuse on David Willetts.

It’s hard to disagree with that. However, there is a fundamental difference between opening a debate and announcing a policy, even tentatively. The problem with the UK government’s approach to English higher education is that it has not recognised the proper demarcation between what Don Nutbeam calls ‘testing ideas’ on the one hand and policy formulation on the other. On top of that, policy formulation has been erratic and often very badly explained. This in turn creates a kind of raw nervousness in the academic community and helps to explain the responses.

The main reason why I suspect we are not living in a golden age of higher education debate is because very little of whatever debate we are having is actually about education. It’s about means, resources, processes, institutions, regulations and controls; it’s not about knowledge, pedagogy and scholarship. The tetchiness of the exchanges is prompted by the inadequacy of the subject matter. The grandeur of education is being stuffed into a budget envelope. This is as true of the academic contributions as it is of government policies. We need to raise our sights, and more than a little, and need to rediscover some sense of the potential of higher education in its real mission.

The cuts culture

May 3, 2011

We’ve been here before, but this time it’s worse than anything we’ve experienced before. In higher education in the developed world, we are in an era of apparently never-ending cuts. Public money is being stripped out of the system, to be replaced in some jurisdictions by higher tuition fees.

A consequence of this development is that it can create an institutional culture that brings all significant strategic innovation to an end: the culture of efficiencies and savings. A possible example of that is the statement by the Vice-Chancellor of one UK university (which has just suffered public funding cuts of 7 per cent) that the priority now was making the university ‘as lean as possible’ by being ‘smarter about how we manage our operations’. In fact I have no doubt that the university in question is continuing to develop its strategic opportunities, but the risk in a cuts culture is that everything is focused on retrenchment and survival, and not enough energy goes into innovation and renewal.

Every university needs to review constantly how well it is managing its resources, but cutting costs is not enough for sustainability and success. The key objective during such times must be to find new sources of revenue, and to start new initiatives. Without that, any university is on a path to a slow death.

Of course the risk is that the search for revenue may dilute the higher education core mission. Getting this right is not easy. Not all will get it right.

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.

Shape of things to come?

January 3, 2011

For those who believe, as I do, that university autonomy is a clear prerequisite for excellence in higher education, there is alarming news from Arkansas in the United States. Senator Jimmy Jeffress is pushing for a measure to be put to the voters of Arkansas that would, if passed in a referendum, establish a state governance body for all the state’s universities which would take over from the governing boards of the universities themselves.

Under this proposed measure that state’s Governor would appoint the board, and this in turn would set the strategy and the finances (including tuition fees) of the whole sector. The leadership of individual institutions would then solely be charged with the management of the implementation of these strategies.

For those who might feel that this couldn’t happen here, it is worth pointing out that Senator Jeffress’ initiative came out of a general popular disillusionment with the state’s universities and is clearly intended as a populist measure. His views on why this is necessary might well resonate with some voters over here. Furthermore, from the information leaked so far, the Hunt working group working on Irish higher education strategy may have been flirting with similar ideas, if not quite as far developed.

Universities will need to be careful that they do not lose the initiative on higher education policy.

Technological universities?

October 4, 2010

According to the Munster Express regional newspaper, the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Innovation, Batt O’Keeffe TD, told the Waterford Chamber of Commerce that the report of the higher education strategic review steering group chaired by Dr Colin Hunt ‘could have positive news for Waterford IT, Cork IT and Dublin IT.’ For non-Irish readers, these institutions are all designated as ‘Institutes of Technology’, i.e. higher education institutions that do not have university status. Of course the Minister’s teaser could mean anything at all, but given that he was saying this to Waterford businesspeople, he must have intended to hint that the quest for university status was probably going to be successful. Certainly that’s how they picked it up, and if this doesn’t turn out to be the case the Minister might want to decline invitations to speak anywhere in the South-East for a while.

In fact the good people of the Chamber appear to have taken this to be a hint that Waterford (and the other named institutions) were going to be offered a new status of ‘technological university’. This indeed has been a matter of speculation for a while, though not necessarily just in regard to these three institutes. The institute of technology sector, without input from either Waterford IT or DIT (Dublin) who have ben going their own way, has been suggesting for a while that they might be converted into one federal technological university. This case may now be receiving some support, though it is not clear exactly what form such a transformation might take, or which institutions it would affect.

At this point in my career I am most directly associated with two universities, Dublin City University and Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen. Just 25 years ago neither of these was a university, so it would be wrong of me to suggest that such changes of status should not be supported. Indeed, I suspect that a good case can be made for the three institutes in question – though I might add that the case for Waterford has not particularly been helped by the argument used by local government and business interests that Waterford needs a university for business development reasons. That is not a reason at all for a change of status of the institute, and there are other much stronger reasons to do with the academic achievements recorded there.

I would certainly take the view that the time has come for some clarity on this issue. Does Ireland still want or need an institute of technology sector? If so, should this continue to consist of all the current institutions? If not, how does one differentiate between them? Should some of the institutes gain access to the university sector through bilateral arrangements with existing universities? What should happen to the non-degree level training programmes of the institutes? If there is to be a technological university, or several such universities, will these have the same status and roles as the existing universities?

The Hunt report may suggest answers to all of this, but one way or another the government needs to bring the current uncertainty about the future of this sector to an end.

In search of a higher education strategy

June 22, 2010

The Irish Times newspaper reports today that the steering group working on the Irish higher education strategic review is set to recommend ‘the return of student tuition charges as colleges face unprecedented financial pressures’. According to the newspaper, the group chaired by Dr Colin Hunt will also recommend the following:

‘Closer collaboration between all third-level colleges with the development of clusters specialising in a smaller number of disciplines: an expanded role for the HEA in managing the sector and linking spending to national objectives and a new workload management process where the working hours of academic staff in both the universities and the institutes of technology (ITs) will be more closely monitored.’

In fact Colin Hunt spoke at the conference held in DCU last week, and in his address (in which he emphasised that he was not presenting an early précis of the report but was speaking on his own behalf) he raised a number of issues, including the lack of transparency in the universities’ workload allocations, the difficulty the Irish higher education system may face in absorbing a major increase in student numbers (from 160,000 today to an estimated 275,000 in 2030), the need to have Irish institutions with critical mass, and the desirability of diversity in the sources of funding.

My concern at the moment is that the issues that may form the subject of the recommendations of the report when it is published don’t necessarily address the major objective of having a higher education strategy for Ireland. The national strategy debate has tended to focus on operational matters rather than on a vision. So that as a country we don’t get bogged down in a debate on what are important but still secondary issues – such as workload allocations, and even funding – we need to formulate a concept of higher education that explains what we are trying to achieve as a country. A higher education strategy is not about filling various campuses with students and researchers or equipment; it is not about hours of work; and it is not even about resourcing. It is about what higher education can do to offer high value learning to students of all ages; how research should be conducted, and on what themes or subjects, and to what end. It is about what higher education institutions can or should do to support and assist our society and community to achieve its full potential and to secure prosperity, inclusiveness and a sense of collective self-respect. We cannot develop a framework for how colleges should be run unless we are already clear what higher purpose these colleges need to pursue.

Of course as a university President I care about funding, resources, staffing buildings, equipment, governance, inter-institutional relations and so forth. But they all take second place to the overall vision, which they must be equipped to implement. The strength of that vision will give life to the implementation of the overall recommendations of the report. It is my hope that the working group will ensure that the vision will be at the heart of the strategy.

Finding the bottom line?

June 7, 2010

In the context of an article in yesterday’s Sunday Independent newspaper on the budget and staffing cuts now being imposed on universities, Tánaiste and Minister for Education, Mary Coughlan TD, is quoted as saying that ‘the bottom line was that Irish universities would have to do more with less because of the recession’. In fairness, she also said that she would be willing to talk to the university presidents, but about what exactly?

It is now really important that our politicians and civil servants understand that, from the point we have already reached, we cannot do ‘more with less’. This is not because we don’t want to play our part in steering the country towards recovery, it is precisely because we do want to help but cannot do it this way. What the Tánaiste said indicates she believes we still have ‘fat’ in the system and that we can absorb cuts while still expanding activities. Of course in one sense she is right: we can go on adding students and teach them with fewer staff; but what we cannot do is to teach these students to an acceptable level of quality.

The universities will need to come up with an alternative vision. Simply rejecting the Tánaiste’s analysis is unlikely to get us very far. What we need is a coherent alternative view of how we should now proceed and how this would be affordable to the taxpayer. Right now there is little sign of an emerging higher education strategy in Ireland coming from the government or its agencies. We may need to do that job ourselves.

The issues for 2010

January 4, 2010

Probably not many people will look back on 2009 with any great sense of affection. It was a very difficult year, with many losing their jobs and with financial and economic uncertainty affecting almost everyone. In Ireland, the concept of social partnership (which has defined economic development for over 20 years) appears to have come to an end, and indeed industrial unrest (almost totally forgotten for the past two decades) made an admittedly rather spluttering re-appearance. In higher education, universities came under significant pressure, both as part of what is thought to be the public sector and in its own right. A higher education strategy is being formulated by a special working group, but we know that one of the steers this group is getting from the government and its agencies is that there should be closer control of universities and colleges. The Minister for Education announced a ‘forensic audit’ of third level finances, with the apparent sub-text being that the institutions were not spending their money wisely or efficiently.

As we go into 2010, there is a curious feeling that all the cards in the game have been swept from the table and that we must expect something totally new, thought we don’t right now know what that will be. On the other hand, the excitement and near panic of the past year may be subsiding, and there is at least the prospect of some greater economic stability.

So from a higher education perspective, what are the issues that need to be resolved this year? Here is my list – and anyone else’s alternatives would be of great interest to me.

• Will Irish higher education undergo a significant restructuring? Will the UCD-TCD ‘Innovation Alliance’ be followed by other inter-institutional arrangements? Well, the answer to that is yes, but what form will these arrangements take, and will they matter in practice?
• Is the debate on tuition fees dead, or will it re-emerge this year? Actually, the answer to this is also yes, but it may be in a broader context. What arguments should universities be putting forward?
• Will the institutes of technology make progress with their plans for a national technological university? I suspect not, but this should perhaps be a question for a wider and more public debate.
• How will the Irish universities fare in next autumn’s global rankings? Maybe that seems a trivial question to some, but actually quite a lot of things are affected by the league tables, and funding cuts may make it difficult to sustain our positions.
• Will the constraints on staffing, recruitment and promotions be relaxed? This is critical, as they are having a major effect on morale.
• Will the state keep its nerve on research funding and continue the plans elaborated in the last National Development Plan and the Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation?
• Will student feedback become a more routine method of assessing teaching quality?
• Will blogs and social networking spread further as tools in higher education?

One way or another, this will be an interesting year, which could be crisis-ridden or which could produce genuine new thinking and innovation. I plan to be optimistic. In any case, my own direct stake in all of this may be different from mid-July onwards…