Posted tagged ‘Hunt report’

Waterford and Carlow, and the strange tale of a proposed ‘technological university’

October 19, 2015

This article first appeared in the Sunday Times

For the past decade or so it has been completely impossible to travel to the South-East of Ireland without someone mercilessly bending your ear about the need for Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) to be granted university status. Indeed if you met anyone from the Institute or the city for any reason whatsoever, you had to factor in an additional 30 minutes to allow this particular topic to be aired extensively first.

As it happens, WIT is an excellent academic institution with real strengths. It has been able to demonstrate its ability to compete in the research agenda, and its buildings and infrastructure are very impressive. Furthermore, I work for a university – and until July 2010 worked for another – that only achieved that status relatively recently, and so I should feel sympathy for the Waterford case. And if I wanted to find other voices supporting their position, it would not be difficult: for example Dr Ed Walsh, founding President of the University of Limerick, has backed WIT’s case.

Since 1997 there has been a statutory mechanism for examining the case an institution might make for conversion to university status. Under the Universities Act a panel of national and international experts would be established to examine the application, and would make a recommendation to the government based on criteria set out in the Act. There is at the very least a strongly arguable case that any such application by WIT would succeed.

But that would be all too rational and simple, so of course we cannot do it that way. Partly because Waterford is not the only institute of technology wanting to be re-badged, and because regional political pressures might push the system to consider such ambitions seriously, a much more complex and totally implausible framework has been established, based on the idea that there should be a separate category in Ireland of ‘technological universities’.

The idea of technological universities emerged in the Hunt Report, National Strategy for Higher Education, published in 2011. This report suggested that such institutions could be created by merging clusters of institutes of technology and calling the resulting organization a ‘technological university’. The criteria to be applied, which were to be set out in legislation, do not differ markedly from those we might expect for a university more generally. And before anyone would be able to apply for such status, they would first have to merge with someone else.

There are all sorts of problems with this proposed framework. First of all, contrary to what is suggested in the Hunt report, there is no recognized international concept of a ‘technological university’. There are some institutions with such a name – the Technological University of Munich, and Queensland University of Technology are examples, but these are high value research-intensive universities, and nothing like the concept suggested in Hunt.

Secondly, and crucially, it is completely baffling why anyone would think that a merger should make two institutions more suited to be universities. The Waterford example is an instructive one. As I have suggested (and as many others have also concluded), very good arguments can be made for university status for WIT. However, the institute has been told that it can only be considered for such a status if it first merges with Carlow Institute of Technology. Carlow is a perfectly good institute, but has nowhere near the same claim for university status as Waterford. It has a much more modest research profile, and generally has a profile that is extremely valuable but not typical of a university. So how are we to make sense of the proposition that WIT is not good enough to be a university, but that if it merges with a weaker institute (and one with which it has no record of strategic collaboration) it will be more eligible? Frankly, this is totally crazy.

In fact, the assumption that merged institutions are stronger than individual ones is very questionable. None of the world’s top 20 universities is particularly large. In fact, the world’s top university (according to Times Higher Education) is Caltech, which if it were in Ireland would be the smallest third level institution here. In addition, none of the 100 largest universities in the world are in the top 100 ranked institutions. There simply is no correlation between size and excellence.

Finally, there is no evidence that mergers between institutions based in different locations are a good idea. Those that have been tried have more often than not failed. There is, simply, a need for Irish policy makers more generally to stop thinking of mergers as a good solution to anything. The fixation on this objective has the potential to do damage to the system

It would have to be said that Irish public policy on Irish institutes of technology has gone badly wrong. Rather than trying to force institutions to do something that really makes no sense, it is time to think again.

Creating ‘Technological Universities’ in Ireland

January 22, 2014

The Irish government has published the Technological Universities Bill 2014, and with it proposes to re-cast the Irish higher education sector. This is part of a new framework which was heralded in the Hunt Report in 2011 (the National Strategy for Higher Education) and which has been confirmed as government policy subsequently. Under this policy it was suggested that where two or more current Institutes of Technology merge, and where they satisfy certain criteria, they could become ‘technological universities’; the suggestion in the Hunt Report being that this is an established international type of university.

The legal instrument to give effect to all this is to be the new Bill, which is described as follows in the explanatory note accompanying it:

‘The Long Title of the Bill provides that the purpose of this legislation is to provide for the merger of Dublin Institute of Technology, Institute of Technology Tallaght and Institute of Technology, Blanchardstown to form the new Dublin Institute of Technology and to provide for other institutes of technology to merge. The purpose of the Bill is also to provide for the establishment of a technological university and for the designation of institutes of technology merged under the Act as technological universities.’

As this note suggests, the Bill puts the cart some distance before the horse, because it first provides for the merger of three existing Institutes of Technology in the Dublin area, under the name of the largest of these, Dublin Institute of Technology. It then sets out terms under which other clusters of Institutes may be merged. The fact that DIT is given a special chapter in the Bill tells us that this particular merger has already been finalised and will proceed.

The Bill then sets out thee process and criteria for the establishment of a merged set of Institutes (for which the new DIT automatically qualifies) as a ‘Technological University’, subject to certain conditions. These conditions will be specified by the Minister for Education by order, but under section 28 must take account of the following:

(a) the provision of programmes at all levels of higher education with particular reference to the National Framework of Qualifications, and the breadth and orientation of those programmes to reflect the skills needs in the labour force,
(b) the profile of learners at the time of application to include; (i) a minimum of 4% of full time equivalent student enrolments in honours degree programmes or above to be enrolled in postgraduate programmes; (ii) a combined minimum of 30% of all enrolments to be in flexible learning programmes; professional or industry based programmes; or mature learners;
(c) the provision of high quality research and innovation activities with direct social and economic impacts for the region of location of the institution, with the capacity to support programmes and doctoral training in a minimum of three fields of knowledge/study at the time of application;
(d) evidence of a high level of engagement of the institute with business, enterprise, the professions and other related stakeholders in the region within which the institute operates,
(e) the profile of the staff of the institute, with particular reference to the qualifications of the teaching staff to include a minimum of 90% of full time academic staff to hold a postgraduate qualification with a minimum of 45% of full time academic staff to hold a doctoral qualification or terminal degree appropriate to their profession at the time of application,
(f) the quality of educational provision of the institute, with particular reference to quality assurance procedures, curriculum development informed by the needs of enterprise, and programme development,
(g) the current and planned activities of the institute to enhance its internationalisation relating to teaching, research, staff and student mobility and collaboration, and
(h) a high standard in the overall management and governance of the institute concerned, including the establishment of properly integrated and effective academic governance structures sufficient to enable the institute to deliver the objects and functions of a technological university …

The Bill then sets out the process to be followed in the case of any application to become a Technological University, which will involve in particular the setting up of an advisory panel. If this panel recommends the establishment, the Minister may then proceed with the appropriate order. There are also provisions for the expansion of Technological Universities through the inclusion of other third level institutions.

Section 50 of the Bill then sets out the proposed ‘objects’ of a Technological University, as follows:

(a) to provide and maintain a teaching and learning environment of excellent quality offering higher education at an international standard;
(b) to provide for the broad education, intellectual and personal development of students, equip graduates to excel in their chosen careers and enable them to contribute responsibly to social, civic and economic life in innovative and adaptable ways.
(c) to achieve academic excellence in research and support the exploitation of intellectual property and technology and knowledge transfer.
(d) to support entrepreneurship, enterprise development and innovation.
(e) to support the development of a skilled workforce.
(f) to promote inward and outward mobility of staff and students between the Technological University, business, industry, the professions and the wider community.
(g) to serve their communities and the public interest by- (i) supporting the delivery of local, regional and national economic objectives and making a measurable impact upon local, regional and national economic development, businesses and enterprises; (ii) fostering close and effective relationships with local, regional, national and international stakeholders, including relevant local authorities and regional assemblies, and enterprise partners. (iii) enriching cultural and community life; 82 (iv) promoting critical and free enquiry, informed intellectual discourse and public debate within the Technological University and in the wider society; (v) promoting an entrepreneurial ethos;
(h) to provide accessible and flexible learning pathways for students from a diverse range of backgrounds and to provide programmes and services in a way that reflects principles of equity and social justice and promotes access for all citizens in their region;
(i) to confer degrees and other qualifications;
(j) to utilise or exploit its expertise and resources, whether commercially or otherwise
(k) to provide directly, or in collaboration with other institutions of education, facilities for university education, including technological and professional education, and for research.
(l) to develop international collaborations and partnerships.

There will no doubt be considerable interest in this legislation, which will change fundamentally the Irish higher education system. The new framework is essentially the result of political lobbying by certain institutes which have argued that, for reasons relating to their achievements but also relating to local economic development needs, they should be given university status. Previous assessments of such cases on traditional criteria for university status have failed. This new framework is based on the rather questionable assertion in Hunt that there is an established concept of a ‘technological university’, and that this can use different criteria from those that apply to existing universities.

It is also based on the interesting understanding that a cluster of institutes, none of which individually could make a successful claim for university status, should be more eligible as a group; an understanding that could fairly easily be challenged. As I have argued elsewhere, if, say, Waterford Institute of Technology is not eligible to be a university, the case does not become more convincing because you have added Carlow Institute, which by every yardstick is a much weaker institution.

However, in the end this new framework will be driven by political rather than academic considerations. What impact this will have on the university system and its global reputation remains to be seen. It should perhaps be said that there is a good case for considering some institutes for university status; but whether this is the best way of looking at this is, at least in my view, highly questionable.

The meaning of university ‘autonomy’

June 18, 2013

Just over three years ago, towards the end of my term of office as President of Dublin City University, I took part in a meeting between university presidents and members of the ‘strategy group’ chaired by Dr Colin Hunt who were then working on a new strategy for Irish higher education (and whose report was published in 2011). One of the points of discussion was the desirability of university autonomy. All those present – presidents and members of the Hunt group – agreed that autonomy was vital for universities in a successful national system. But in the course of the conversation it became clear that there were rather different views about what ‘autonomy’ actually meant. In an exchange I had with a senior public servant on the strategy group it became clear that they saw autonomy not (as I suggested) as independence in formulating strategy, but rather as freedom to choose appropriate management methods to implement a government strategy.

In 2011 I moved to Scotland, and as readers of this blog will know I was appointed chair of a review of Scottish higher education governance. My panel issued its report in early 2012. One of our recommendations was that chairs of governing bodies should be elected by staff, students and other stakeholders. This recommendation, which we suspected would be controversial, has been vehemently resisted by governing body chairs and others within the universities, with one of the objections being that if implemented it would compromise university autonomy.

So is there in all this a properly developed view of autonomy? What does it mean? Does it mean, for example, that the state may take no interest of any kind in university governance? Does it mean, on the other hand, that the state can impose a strategic direction, merely allowing universities to choose methods of implementation? Presumably the truth lies somewhere in between these two rather different propositions. Autonomy cannot mean that society has no stake in universities and that its representatives should mind their own business; that would suggest a level of independence from anyone’s oversight that no other body in society, public or private, enjoys. On the other hand autonomy, if it is to mean anything, must include the right of a university to determine its own strategy, taking into account the public interest (which will usually be expressed in conditions of state funding).

Various definitions of university autonomy have been suggested. The European Universities Association, for example, has argued that it involves organisational, financial, staffing and academic autonomy – a definition that for me is too structural, and not strategic enough. Others have questioned whether university autonomy has come to be seen too much as managerial autonomy from staff influence.

Universities must, like all other bodies, show their responsiveness to the needs of the wider society, but must be left to make most of the judgements about how to reflect this themselves. In the meantime the state, as the guardian of the public interest, must be able to regulate some of the structures of governance, provided this does not include control over decision-making within the institutions. This was the position we were seeking to address in the governance review. I still think we found the right balance.

The future of higher education: ‘directed diversity’?

September 3, 2011

In Ireland, the chief executive of the Higher Education Authority (Ireland’s higher education funding council), Tom Boland, has just made a very interesting speech in which he has set out his vision for the future of the system. It is worth setting out verbatim the key passage in his speech:

‘The first and most crucial reform envisaged is what I’d like to term the end of the era of laissez faire in higher education, and its replacement by what might be termed “directed diversity”. By laissez faire, I mean the strategic approach to higher education which has had at its centre light touch regulation – a term that has now become deeply unpopular and not just in financial circles. While light touch regulation has brought us much success in higher education, including soaring participation rates and a standard of higher education which is good by any benchmark, it has also given us unnecessary and inefficient duplication in programme provision; it has given us mission creep; inflexible staffing structures and practices and it has given us a fragmented system of institutions with no national, coherent strategic focus…

… We now need to transform Irish higher education from a set of institutions operating in isolation into a coherent, well co-ordinated system of higher education and research.’

A little later he added:

‘Through this process I believe we can build a higher education system which concentrates investment in multiple centres of excellence, right across the system; which brings coherence to these centres as a whole system; which encourages collaborations where these make sense from the viewpoint of a quality student learning experience; which greatly enhances accountability by greatly enhancing the quality and comparability of data on the performance of the system, and which ensures that we have diversity of institutions offering a wide range of provision combined with clear institutional focus on national goals. This is what I mean by the term “directed diversity”.’

The question addressed by Tom Boland, which is one that had also been examined by Ireland’s recent report on higher education strategy (the Hunt report), is whether the strategic development of the higher education system should flow from the decisions of autonomous universities or from a nationally coordinated plan, however that plan might be constructed. His conclusion that national coordination is necessary is not unique in global higher education.

All of this addresses the key issue of university autonomy, what it means and whether it is important; or indeed if it is important, how it should be exercised. These are the absolutely critical issues of higher education. They will determine its future nature and direction.

Establishing new universities in Ireland

June 22, 2011

For the past decade or so it has been completely impossible to travel to the South-East of Ireland without someone mercilessly bending your ear about the need for Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT) to be granted university status. Indeed if you met anyone from the Institute for any reason whatsoever, you had to factor in an additional 30 minutes for the time allocated to the meeting to allow this particular topic to be aired extensively first.

As it happens, WIT is an excellent academic institution with real strengths. It has been able to demonstrate its ability to compete in the research agenda, and its buildings and infrastructure are very impressive. Furthermore, I work for a university – and until July 2010 worked for another – that only achieved that status relatively recently, and so I should feel sympathy for the Waterford case. And if I wanted to find other voices supporting their position, it would not be difficult: for example Dr Ed Walsh, founding President of the University of Limerick, has backed WIT’s case.

In the meantime of course, the report on a National Strategy for Higher Education – the Hunt report – set out a framework for converting clusters of institutes of technology (but not individual institutes) into ‘technological universities’ (chapter 8). The report suggested:

‘There may be a case for facilitating the evolution of some existing institutes following a process of consolidation, into a form of university that is different in mission from the existing Irish universities.’

The idea behind this therefore is that ‘technological’ universities would be something generically different from ‘normal’ universities, but would also be something different from existing institutes of technology. This would maintain a binary divide in Irish higher education, but apparently one that is qualitatively different, even if that difference is for now somewhat ill defined.

And so the Higher Education Authority has now published a set of possible criteria for this process, prepared by Simon Marginson, a higher education expert from the University of Melbourne, and on which the HEA is now inviting comments. In looking at these criteria, I am finding it difficult to see how these would clearly identify a university that is different from at least some of those already having that status. Picking up some of the criteria, they include scale (‘an institution large enough to be comparable with existing universities in Ireland’), international standing (‘developed international collaborations such as joint projects, student and staff exchange, and combined provision of programs’), industry links (‘curricula that are developed in close consultation with business, professional and occupational organizations’), research (‘a research strategy that foregrounds [sic] the applied research mission, links to enterprises and the contribution of the TU to innovation and knowledge transfer’), governance (‘a governing body that includes representatives of enterprises, occupations, professions and local communities’), and so on. While all these criteria would not necessarily describe all existing universities, they do cover things that all universities have or do at least some of the time. The difference appears to be mainly that the ‘technological universities’ will also offer programmes that are below honours degree level (as well as honours and postgraduate programmes).

I might stress here that I am not opposed to university status for Waterford. But I do believe that the criteria already contained in the Universities Act 1997 for university status are sufficient, and I don’t see a compelling reason for having different criteria for other institutions also to be called ‘university’. It will be interesting to see what views and opinions are expressed in response to this document by the HEA.

Funding Irish higher education

May 26, 2011

According to a report in yesterday’s Irish Times, the Irish Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn TD, has expressed concerns about higher education funding:

‘Mr Quinn also conceded yesterday that it was “hard to see” how the third-level sector could achieve the ambitions set for it by Government within the existing funding framework.’

It is good that the Minister has expressed his awareness of this, and it is to be hoped that the sector will work constructively with him to find a workable solution. What seems to be clear right now is that the Irish universities are crucial to the economic regeneration agenda, but that the public finance crisis is preventing the government from sustaining it in a way that is viable. If tuition fees are off the agenda, it may be time to accept that it is not possible to continue to admit the number of students currently going through Irish higher education, not least because these students will no longer be sure to have a high quality education. This, too, would not be an easy decision, but what is happening now is unsustainable.

While Ireland still does not have a solution to its higher education problems, at least these problems are being properly identified. That’s a start.

Irish higher education strategy: implementing Hunt

April 7, 2011

Not long before the last Fianna Fáil led government left office it published the higher education strategic review (the Hunt Report). At the time a number of commentators, myself included, speculated that the timing of this report, the political and economic circumstances, and the generally negative response to the document might lead to it being quietly shelved (like every other strategic review before it).

Not so, apparently. The briefing document recently prepared for the new Minister for Education, Ruairi Quinn TD, and published on the Department’s website has revealed that an ‘Implementation Oversight Group’ has been established, largely composed of senior civil servants, and that it has already adopted a ‘detailed implementation plan’.

If you are wondering what it intends to implement, here are some key passages from the briefing document. First, the document summarises the overall system it wants to see developed:

‘A higher education system with the highest quality of delivery of all aspects of the mission is the overarching objective of the Strategy.’

This is how it sees the Irish higher education system of the future:

‘The Strategy recommends a new framework for future system development. This will be aimed at creating a reduced number of higher education institutions of more significant scale and critical mass. A key objective is to protect the distinctive role and mission of universities and technological institutes within the Irish system.’

This is how it sees the relationship between higher education and govbernment policy:

‘The Strategy recommends that a strengthened Higher Education Authority should oversee a process of strategic dialogue with institutions (and groups of institutions within regional clusters) to ensure that institutional strategy and performance is aligned with and supports delivery on stated overarching national policy priorities. ‘

This is about governance:

‘The Strategy recommends that the management, governance and leadership of higher education institutions need to be positioned to allow higher education institutions to become more entrepreneurial and more flexible and responsive to the external environment.’

And here something on terms of employment:

‘In addition it is recognised that more flexible institutions will require new contractual arrangements with staff as well as strong performance management and workload allocation systems embedded throughout the sector.’

The focus in all of this is on system rather than pedagogy, something (as I have noted) that Ireland has in common with the current outlook in England. How education fares in all of this remains to be seen. Certainly in Ireland the sector is facing a more centralised and bureaucratised framework. That is unlikely to push up educational standards.

Irish higher education: the hunt for the right words

February 10, 2011

This is the word cloud for the Hunt Report on Irish higher education (National Strategy for Higher Education). It confirms the group’s focus on structures and process rather than content.