Posted tagged ‘modernisation’

Modernising higher education

July 8, 2009

Right now there are several processes and reviews under way that will have a profound impact on the future of higher education, and which will in all likelihood turn it  into something quite different from the traditional model. In fact, reform and change are needed, and those of us working in the system should not be too defensive about that. However, the question is whether the particular changes that may emerge will be positive or counter-productive. Let me just remind ourselves what these various processes are.

• The strategic review of higher education set up by the Minister for Education and Science. This was initially announced some time ago by the last Minister, Ms Mary Hanafin TD, but it was formally put in place by the current Minister, Mr Batt O’Keeffe TD, in March of this year. While the terms of reference are quite broad, the Minister appears to have placed the rationalisation of higher education at the centre of the review. It is expected hat the steering group charged with conducting the review will report some time towards the end of the year.

• The cabinet discussion concerning the return of tuition fees. Today’s Irish Times reports that the Minister for Education has submitted a 100-page document to the cabinet setting out five options for ‘student contributions,’ with apparently the favoured option being a system of student loans (avoiding any up-front payments). We do not at this point know what the other options are, nor what the timeframe might be for the implementation of a new funding system.

TheEmployment Control Framework‘. As mentioned here yesterday, the Higher Education Authority has told the higher education institutions that there is to be a general embargo on appointments, contract renewals and promotions in the sector, with some exceptions – but all such exceptions would require individual approval by the HEA. Discussions between the Irish Universities Association and the HEA are expected to take place on this; but if the ‘framework’ survives intact it could fundamentally alter the nature of higher education in Ireland.

• Establishment of an ‘innovation taskforce.’ The announcement of this initiative was made last week; it is ostensibly a product of TCD’s and UCD’s ‘innovation alliance’, and the heads of both institutions (along with various others with associations with these colleges) are on the taskforce, which is to be chaired by Dermot McCarthy, Secretary General of the Department of the Taoiseach. The terms of reference focus on the translation of research funding into high value jobs. Given the suspicions aroused initially by the TCD-UCD alliance, this taskforce will probably be watched with some care.

• The Minister’s ‘forensic audit’ of higher education. This was announced by the Minister almost a year ago, and is being conducted by the Comptroller and Auditor-General. What the ultimate purpose may be is not entirely clear.

All of these processes have the capacity to effect profound change, but they are not really part of a coherent overall framework of review. Furthermore, some of these processes are taking place without any involvement of the sector in the discussions (e.g. the discussion about fees), while in others the input or the representation of the sector could be questioned. Also, there could be a suspicion that the driving force behind these reviews and discussions and decisions is not a vision of modernisation, but rather a failure of the political and higher education systems to connect properly in an atmosphere of mutual respect.

It is my view that these reviews and discussions must be placed within an overall strategic vision, which should be articulated much more clearly by the government, and which should be built on a much greater sense of partnership between government and higher education; both sides should make every effort to establish and maintain a greater sense of trust. The universities themselves also need to articulate a clearer vision of how they would see the sector developing, and what kind of change and reform would seem attractive or necessary; and that vision itself must reflect considerable buy-in from the higher education community more widely.

In order to help this along a little I propose to set out in occasional posts over the coming weeks what changes the university sector might contemplate in order to advance a coherent vision of modernisation. A wider debate on this is badly needed.