Posted tagged ‘higher education’

The future of higher education: the key issue is autonomy

September 6, 2011

The recent speech by Tom Boland, chief executive of Ireland’s Higher Education Authority, on what he called ‘directed diversity’ prompted a lively debate in the comments section of this blog. The key element of this speech appears to have been the proposal that  universities will need to have their strategic objectives approved by the HEA, to ensure that these are in line with government policies and that there is no unnecessary duplication of provision.

The proposal as described will almost certainly be strongly opposed by at least some groups of lecturers, perhaps because it could remove the discretion from universities as to how to plan their teaching. Some lecturers with this perspective argue that  national strategic coordination will remove the relative freedom and discretion that academics currently enjoy.

However, there is also a wider university dimension. The autonomy of universities is protected in Ireland by the Universities Act 1997, and any change in current practice would arguably require a new statute. But leaving aside the legal dimension, the autonomy of universities ensures that they can address the educational, social, scientific and cultural issues of the day and respond imaginatively to them.  Furthermore, autonomy is not about having the right to decide how to implement strategic objectives that have been set. Rather, autonomy is about determining those strategic objectives in an independent manner.

I doubt that a framework of ‘directed diversity’ can work, because it will have to handle too many inherent contradictions. I would strongly argue that institutional autonomy must remain a major higher education strategy. I am not convinced that Tom Boland’s vision, if implemented, would allow that to be the case.


Accessing the university

September 1, 2008

This morning I had to undertake one of my more pleasant tasks – welcoming the new intake of access students to DCU. Every year we admit a significant number of students from disadvantaged backgrounds or areas, who will get special financial and personal support while they are with us. DCU’s access programme was the first in the Irish university sector, and is still the largest. It is an important contribution to Irish society, and it provides these students with the education for which they are suited and to which they have an entitlement.

Access programmes such as this have contributed significantly to the growing participation rate in higher education, and more particularly to participation by disadvantaged groups. But it has to be said that this has been achieved not because of the ‘free fees’ programme, but rather in spite of it. Free fees have targeted the main taxpayer resources at the middle classes, and have actually resulted in something of a neglect of the disadvantaged, which the universities have had to compensate for with their own resources or the resources of private donors. It is another important reason why the whole resourcing envelope needs to be looked at again.

In the meantime, however, we remain committed to ensuring that people from all backgrounds who have the talent and the ability are able to enter higher education, and DCU will, I hope, remain in the forefront of this effort. Our leadership in this area is something of which I am particularly proud.

Higher education during an economic crisis

June 24, 2008

This morning the news was full of gloomy economic facts: Ireland is in (or will shortly be in) a recession. We also know that government revenues are running significantly below target. All of this means that public funding for education (and most other services) will almost certainly be squeezed in the coming year, and we are likely to face cuts. An already under-funded system will be put under further strain.

Higher education has traditionally been an easy target for cuts during difficult economic times. Public emotions are not usually aroused by lowering funding for universities. However, we need to reflect before we go down that road. During the economic bad times of the 1980s, this country was able to plan for a better future on the basis of low taxes, high skills and relatively cheap labour. The boom of the 1990s was largely built on that formula.

These options no longer exist for us. We are no longer a low cost economy, and no amount of recession will change that. International investors will not come back to create call centres and open manufacturing plants in Ireland. We still have low taxes, and they still matter, but other countries have also caught on to that, and on their own they will not get us out of trouble. Finding our way back into steady growth is now more complex than it was in the 1990s, but that’s the way it goes.

What we do have going for us right now is that we have successfully persuaded the international community that we are serious about a knowledge society, and that Ireland has committed itself to significant investment in high value research, and that we are therefore a good location for industrial research and development. This reputation has been earned by the creation of bodies such as Science Foundation Ireland, and by the Strategy for Science, Technology and innovation (SSTI). All of this provides the foundation for high value innovation, and it has been a powerful weapon for the IDA in attracting inward investment, and it has also supported new indigenous start-ups.

This reputation is however easily lost. Even a short pause in research funding in 2002 sent a damaging message to the international community that Ireland was not consistent about research, and it was not until the adoption of the SSTI that this was finally repaired.

In order for us to emerge successfully from the current difficult economic conditions we need to keep a steady nerve, and avoid giving the impression that higher education and world class research are things we support only in good times. If we are unable to demonstrate that now, the future will look very bleak for the country. But if we do remain consistent, Ireland should be able to avoid the worst damage of this recession, and continue to build on our growing reputation as a centre of innovation and growth.

The unpredictable world of a university President

June 5, 2008

Next month I will have been a university President for eight years. In July 2000 I took up the post of President of Dublin City University (DCU). Rather than being a development or extension of my previous career, it was in fact a whole new life, unrelated pretty much to anything I had done before except that it was also in a university. Previously I had been Dean of Social Sciences (and Professor of Law) at the University of Hull in Northern England, and before that again I had been a Lecturer in the Business School of Trinity College Dublin. I had seen my career as being focused on research and scholarship, and on teaching talented people of all ages. But suddenly all that was over, and I had become a ‘chief officer’ – the administrative and academic and business head of a large organisation.

It is sometimes asked what value university Presidents add to the life and success of their institutions. I may not be the best person to suggest an answer, but in these notes I shall try to set out a little what in fact I do, from day to day, and how this may affect my own institution. But I should also add that while DCU has achieved extraordinary successes in recent years, I do not claim much of the credit: this is due to the talented and hard-working people who make up the university – faculty, staff and students – and without whose dedication nothing would be possible.

As I develop these notes, I shall welcome comments and questions. I can also be contacted at

Ferdinand von Prondzynski