Posted tagged ‘John Hennessy’

Higher education: voters uninterested?

February 8, 2016

In a somewhat downbeat (but realistic) assessment of the state of Irish universities and colleges, the outgoing chair of Ireland’s Higher Education Authority, John Hennessy, laments that there are ‘no votes’ in higher education. Politicians won’t take the decisions they should take, he may be suggesting, because they are not under any pressure from the electorate.

While understanding where he is coming from, it is nevertheless not necessarily a correct assessment. There are many votes in higher education, but they tend to  converge on certain issues that are hot buttons with the public. Tuition fees are an example: politicians know they will draw the wrath of the middle classes if they abandon free tuition, and so generally they don’t. And then of course there are the local higher education issues: ask any politician from the South-East of Ireland whether higher education is an electoral issue, and you will certainly hear all about the case for a university in the region.

Nor is this confined to Ireland. In advance of the last UK general election, there was an interesting analysis in the Guardian newspaper about the higher education issues in England that would potentially have an impact on the vote. Indeed many people would suggest that the near-collapse in the vote for the Liberal Democrats was caused by their higher education policies. In the meantime in the United States student debt is gaining status as a key election issue.

The problem for universities is not that politicians aren’t interested and that voters don’t care. Rather it is that voters don’t much care about the key issue that drives much else: higher education funding. The narrative that has undermined much of higher education is that quality and global competitiveness can be achieved and maintained without anyone having to pay much for it, and that in any case there is too much waste in the system. There is little evidence that voters are concerned, for example, about institutional slippage in global university rankings. Politicians understand what voters care about and so they tend to those issues; and sometimes neglect the issues that really determine the success of a national higher education system.

Universities do register with politicians and voters; but not always in the way they would like. They will need to work out how to re-balance the political narrative, and how to do that in partnership (rather than in conflict) with the key politicians.

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Being competitive in higher education

May 18, 2011

In this blog I recently drew attention to comments made in University College Dublin by the new chair of the Higher Education Authority, Mr John Hennessy, on the topic of what universities should adopt from the private sector. The HEA has now drawn attention to his speech on their website, and it contains the following quote from the speech:

‘My experience in the private sector has taught me that it is absolutely imperative to be competitive. In the last decade, this has changed to be competitive in a global context. A concern I would have for the higher education sector is that there appears to be limited effort to devise and implement a strategy to identify and reward institutions, faculties and individuals that are doing best. We must reward excellence and differentiate between institutions in Higher Education. We must reward and reinforce the right behaviours and differentiate within the sector.’

The question of what it means to be competitive in higher education, and how institutions can be supported in achieving this status, is likely to receive more attention in future. Universities are not necessarily going to compete with each other globally in the way that companies do: they do not offer competing products and services, and they do not adjust prices to maximise competition (except to a limited extent in the international student market – though there the competition tends to be more between countries than between institutions). On the other hand, universities provide a knowledge and skills backdrop to investment and start-up decisions, and their standing vis-à-vis other universities in other countries has a significant impact on these decisions.

In my view, this kind of competitiveness does matter, but it is not the same kind as might be in the mind of a senior corporate executive. I am not suggesting that John Hennessy is wrong in his above comments, but that it would be interesting to hear him expand on his theme, particularly if his views may be about to influence Irish higher education strategy. I hope he takes an early opportunity to do so.

A private sector ethos

May 13, 2011

It is possible that Irish higher education will experience something of a culture war over the coming period. The new chair of the Higher Education Authority, John Hennessy, has said in a speech to a conference in UCD that ‘higher education needs to move closer to the values and practices of the private sector’. He is reported in the Irish Times as saying that this should in particular mean that universities and colleges should be able to hire and fire in the manner that is normal in industry.

The HEA chair had already attracted attention recently when he suggested that arts and humanities academics tended to ‘hold their nose’ when dealing with industry.On this more recent occasion he may have compensated a little by saying that ‘all students should experience arts and humanities subjects in their first year of college’. And still on the positive side, he has stressed the importance of institutional autonomy in the higher education system.

So what do we make of all this? In many ways it is quite refreshing to have one of the key players in higher education expressing such forthright views, as it will tend to sharpen the debate. At a time when the sector will in any case have to consider radical reforms, his interventions will provide some topics for discussion.

On the other hand, if the HEA chair believes that the answer to current higher education difficulties is to introduce routine private sector management practices into the system, he may find it is not quite as easy as that. It might be worthwhile for him to meet key university representatives and hear more about how the institutions operate and what problems they currently face before making suggestions as to what they need to do.

John Hennessy clearly means to be an audible contributor to higher education debate. That must be good. But while universities can and should learn from the private sector, and while greater institutional autonomy (including autonomy in human resources matters) is indeed a vital ingredient of success, private sector ‘values and practices’ cannot provide the sole blueprint for higher education. It is time to have a dialogue with the HEA chair.

No nose for Irish industry?

April 13, 2011

In a world where statements about higher education are often less than fully informed, it is important that the dialogue between universities and the relevant regulatory body – in Ireland’s case the Higher Education Authority – is conducted with a degree of sensitivity and mutual respect. Mostly that has been the case, even where there are disagreements. Therefore I found it somewhat startling when the new chair of the HEA, John Hennessy, was recently reported by the Irish Independent as saying that some academics in the arts and humanities ‘”hold their nose” at the idea of working with industry’. He went on, apparently, to suggest that ‘the humanities have a problem in communicating their contribution to the wider society – a problem the sciences do not have.’

It may of course be that the HEA chair had some specific evidence for these assertions that the newspaper did not include in the report. It may also be that he had more detailed proposals as to how and where the arts and humanities should be engaging with industry where currently they are not or where their communication with society falls down. But if so, it would be helpful to see some of this evidence and assess the proposals. As it is, my fear is that the comments, which he made on the occasion of a public lecture, reinforce the tendency to make unsubstantiated judgements about academic work and use these as a basis for new regulatory restrictions and controls.

It cannot be a matter of surprise that the arts and humanities have less interaction (but hardly none) with industry than is the case with science or engineering. However, in my experience they often work closely with the performing arts, with educational bodies, with voluntary organisations, with cultural and tourism bodies, and so forth. Accusing the arts of not working with industry is in some ways like accusing biochemists of not working with the Abbey Theatre.

John Hennessy’s appointment has been welcomed by many, and it is hoped that he will oversee a well judged and effective cooperation with the academic community in Ireland. But it might be better if the patterns of this cooperation were established a little better before he moves to launch public criticism of some sections of higher education without much visible evidence to back it up. I suspect that the arts and humanities can always usefully review their interaction with the wider society, including industry, but it is better to stimulate such a review in a somewhat more sensitive and less caricatured way. I hope that a constructive dialogue will be more typical of what is to come.