Posted tagged ‘National Strategy for Higher Education’

Reconfiguring the Irish system of higher education

February 14, 2012

The Higher Education Authority (HEA) has, as part of its programme for implementing the national higher education strategy in Ireland (the Hunt report), has issued a paper setting out how it hopes to develop the structure of the system from its present state. The paper, Towards a Future Higher Education Landscape, makes certain assumptions about the current state of the sector and how it should be reformed. At the heart of these assumptions is the belief that what will make Irish higher education successful will be a much greater diversity of institutional mission that has been nationally coordinated. This position is expressed as follows in the paper:

‘In order to create and sustain a diverse yet coherent system, it will be essential that all institutions have a clear perspective on their particular mission and role within the overall system. In particular, it will be essential that institutions ensure that their programmes continue to be reflective of, and appropriate to, their mission.’

This diversity, the HEA believes, will need to be reflected in ‘greater differentiation based on field specialisation, programme orientation and mode of delivery.’ This in turn will be accompanied by ‘regional clusters’ which will allow students to tap into various specialisms spread across the universities and colleges in their area, at least in areas where there are several institutions that make this possible; and the HEA also envisages ‘mission-based clusters’ that will not depend on geographical proximity. All of this will also, the HEA intends, lead to the ‘elimination of unnecessary duplication of provision’.

The other key plan set out in the paper is to bring to an end the state funding of smaller institutions, which will have to merge with larger universities or colleges in order to survive. Institutes of technology will also have to consider mergers, leading to what the paper says will be ‘a smaller number of multi-campus institutions.’

The HEA rightly recognises that this kind of re-ordering will, as it puts it, ‘not occur in an “organic” way’, and it therefore envisages ‘top-down’ action. It therefore acknowledges a risk to institutional autonomy, but argues that this can be overcome by a phased and ‘agreed’ process of implementation; though one must assume that a different framework from that envisaged is not available to be ‘agreed’. As part of this process, universities and colleges are now to put forward proposals to the HEA involving one or more of options that include merger, clustering, conversion to ‘technological university’, or the establishment of a ‘specialist institution’. In the meantime the HEA will commission a paper addressing ‘the number of institutions, the range of missions and the alliances and relationships which have the potential to strengthen the system.’

What all of this represents is a significant reconfiguration of the Irish system of higher education, from one characterised by autonomous but (increasingly) collaborating institutions, to one based on a national, centrally coordinated plan.

It is easy to see how such a nationally directed system could look neat in a bureaucratic sense, but the HEA paper makes little attempt to explain in what way the system will deliver something better once reconfigured, and how those using it (students, industry, communities) will benefit. It acknowledges that the world’s best universities are highly autonomous, and it accepts that the plan will affect autonomy; but it does not say in any specific way what compensating benefits will emerge. It does not address at all the impact of these changes on basic principles such as academic freedom.

It is true that institutions will be able to propose their own plans for focused mission, but since all this will need to add up across the system as a whole, their ability to design their own strategic options will be seriously limited. And while it is entirely right that a small national system should encourage collaboration, in some contexts excellence requires competition also.

Given its role as funder of the system, the state has a legitimate right to look for both excellence and value for money in higher education. So for example, it can appropriately question institutions on issues such as unnecessarily overlapping provision, while however bearing in mind that a university will need, in each case, to be able to offer certain intellectual building blocks within the institution. What we are being asked to contemplate here is that institutional autonomy is wasteful, and that a ‘national system’ that distributes educational and research activity amongst institutions characterised by their specialisms will be better. This, it has to be said, is a mighty big experiment, and one without any currently successful model elsewhere to draw on or to provide some comfort. It changes the nature of institutional strategy from content to process, and vests substantive planning in a central structure. In short, it is threatening to replace institutional initiative with central planning, a framework that was not spectacularly successful in countries where it has been tried.

It is hard to resist the view that managing higher education by grand design is not the best way forward. In fact, Irish higher education has impressed both itself and the world with its ability to absorb serious funding cuts while still, more or less, maintaining acceptable levels of excellence and quality. It does this with resources that are now very substantially smaller than those available to less successful competing national systems. There is, in short, no evidence that Ireland’s higher education sector is wasteful. There is no evidence that the existing model is in any serious way deficient. There is therefore little evidence of a need for the kind of centralised system being proposed, and there are many serious risks that will attend its implementation.

I could be proved wrong. But this is a big leap in the dark.

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.

The value of student feedback

January 13, 2011

A long time ago, in my student days, I was a student representative for my class. We were law students, in a fairly traditional but open-minded university. Our degree programme was in some ways a curious mixture, with some subjects taught to a very conservative syllabus, while others were innovative and ground-breaking. Anyway, the student representatives from the various years got together and mapped out what we thought might be an improved syllabus. We asked to present this to the School’s academic staff, and we were given an opportunity to do so. A number of changes to the syllabus and course structure followed. Of all the things in which I have participated in academic life, this is one of which I am particularly proud.

However, the success of the initiative depended on our enthusiasm and, crucially, the goodwill of the lecturing staff. There was no routine way of registering our views, and I am not sure that it happened again for quite a while. In fact, as a lecturer my first real experience of student input came in my second job, as a Professor of Law in the University of Hull. Before I joined the Law School it had established a ‘staff-student committee’, with equal representation of both students and faculty, and always chaired by a student (but with the Dean present). The students set the agenda, and so everything was potentially a matter for discussion. The committee’s deliberations regularly led to changes in the programme.

In the mid-1990s the School, in line with emerging quality assurance standards in English higher education, introduced anonymous student feedback at the end of each module. Initially this was done by questionnaires sent by post to each student, but the response rate was poor. So we changed, and used the second half of one of the last lectures to hand out the questionnaires and ask the students to complete them there and then, with the lecturer leaving the room and leaving it to a student to collect the completed forms and hand them in. The quality of this particular kind of student feedback was usually very good, and was influential in programme reviews and design.

When I returned to Ireland in 2000, I confess I was surprised that this had not also become a standard practice there – and I am disappointed that it still isn’t. Some lecturers do organise student feedback, but there is no system-wide management of this, and in many degree programmes students have no opportunity to register their views or suggestions or present an assessment of the value to them of what they have experienced. This gap in practice has been picked up by the Higher Education Strategy Group led by Colin Hunt, and in its report it has recommended that ‘every higher education institution should put in place a comprehensive anonymous student feedback system, coupled with structures to ensure that action is taken promptly in response to student concerns’ (page 61). I am wholly in favour of this recommendation, though I might add that its value goes beyond voicing concerns to suggesting improvements and ideas for reform.

As we have come to emphasise that higher education is not just about active teachers and passive learners, it is important that students have opportunities to shape their learning experience. It is not a question of students taking over course design or assessment, but rather of dialogue with learners from which programme design and delivery can benefit – if it is organised well and carried out effectively. Ireland is seriously behind in this, and it is a matter of some urgency that this recommendation is adopted.

Hunt: key principles of higher education strategy

January 12, 2011

Now that the Hunt report (National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030) has been formally published, a larger number of stakeholders and organisations have offered an initial view of its merits. It would be fair to say that some of the later evaluations have been more supportive. So for example, IBEC (the Irish Business and Employers Confederation) issued a statement saying it ‘welcomed the broad direction for change set out in the National Strategy for Higher Education’. Labour Party Education spokesperson Ruairi Quinn expressed doubts about the financing and funding elements of the report, but otherwise broadly welcomed the recommendations. Perhaps most significantly, the Irish Universities Association (IUA) has issued a statement concluding with the following:

‘The Strategy Report brings a much needed conceptual and strategic perspective to the development of our system overall. As the report acknowledges, implementation can only happen through engagement and we look forward to working with government to deliver this.’

So does the Hunt report indeed inject, in the IUA’s words, a ‘conceptual and strategic perspective’? And if so, what is it? In my previous analysis (at the time when the Irish Times had released a draft version of the report) I had suggested that the vision of the report was of a more tightly controlled and centrally managed higher education system. Would the universities want to welcome that? Maybe I was wrong in my reading of the report?

Let us go back, as I did the first time, to the ‘high level objectives’ set out in the report (now on page 27), since one might expect these to reflect the group’s vision. There are six of them, and I am going to suggest that each one contains two key adjectives that explain the principle identified by the group for the relevant objective. Seen in this way, the twelve key words are (1) ‘excellent’ and ‘accessible’; (2) ‘relevant’ and ‘responsive’; (3) ‘international’ and ‘aligned’; (4)  ‘autonomous’ and ‘accountable’; (5) ‘coherent’ and ‘inter-related’; (6) ‘national’ and ‘sustainable’.

As one might have expected, many commentators and the media have latched on to the funding and student contribution elements of the report, but I’ll buck the trend and say that these don’t matter at all, except to the extent that this is one more report (amongst dozens) that agrees that Irish higher education is under-funded. We knew that, and whether anyone does anything about it won’t depend on Hunt, but will be dictated by political considerations after the election. In terms of what actually happens on the financial and resourcing side, Hunt doesn’t matter one bit. Even the Tánaiste, when interviewed on RTE, suggested that this was an issue for further analysis based on the earlier plans drawn up a year or two ago by then Minister for Education Batt O’Keeffe.

So if it’s not about fees, what is it about? Well, going back to the key words, and taking away the ones that are really just waffle (like ‘excellent’ and ‘international’), you are left with a very clear picture: Hunt is about providing a new focused direction for higher education. That could be good or bad, depending on what it means in more detail and how it is implemented. Yesterday’s buzzword amongst those broadly welcoming Hunt was ‘accountable’, also one of our key words here. This in turn is based on the idea that higher education has been spending money without adequately explaining what it has been doing with it, and with the added suggestion that it has been wasteful and inefficient, and that it has tolerated under-performance. Ruairi Quinn, in another interview, tellingly used the word ‘inputs’ – that there needed to be greater control over the resources and activities of universities and colleges. That chimes totally with the Hunt report, which is in fact all about inputs, and hardly about impact or outputs.

And yet, when there is some reference in passing to outputs, it seems to tell a rather positive story; for example, this passage (page 29):

‘The Irish higher education system has served Irish society well in recent decades, as it responded to changes in the social, economic and cultural environment. It has provided society with the knowledge and skills needed to negotiate the changing global landscape, where new understandings, new challenges and new technologies are daily changing the realities we face and our relationships with the world and it has opened new opportunities for personal development and advancement to a generation of citizens.The high-calibre graduates produced by the higher education system have been critical to the development of high-technology indigenous industry and to the attraction of very substantial foreign direct investment into the country, resulting in the creation of high-quality, well-paid employment, economic growth, and a higher standard of living.’

Oddly, this apparent hymn to Irish higher education is followed by the assertion that ‘what has served us well in the past will not serve us well in the future without significant change.’ And the reason for that? ‘Our success in the recent past was based on the application of knowledge that was developed elsewhere. In the years ahead, we will increasingly have to be knowledge creators ourselves.’ Really? What evidence is there for that? In the distant past, absolutely; but in the ‘recent past’ Irish universities have developed hugely successful research partnerships and innovative teaching programmes that have led rather than followed.

What am I concluding? The Hunt group, for whatever reasons, declined to commission its own research, so its work has been based on the submissions made to it and whatever occurred to its members. From what we can now read, it seems to have persuaded itself that there is a problem with higher education, and that this problem is all about its structural looseness and its uncontrolled development. Apart from assertions like the one I have just quoted, it offers no actual evidence for this; but it does offer a proposed bells-and-whistles solution that will make strategy a national rather than institutional concern. Creativity in knowledge development will be the task of a national body, and the institutions will be the agencies to which it contracts out the implementation. OK, that’s a tendentious way of putting it, but I think it’s close to the mark.

I need to balance what I have written here. I am not suggesting that everything in Hunt is all bad. The report is worth reading carefully, and it contains sensible and worthwhile suggestions in a number of contexts. Its concern for a more rational system taking account of national needs is not misplaced, even if I think its remedy is quite wrong. Its call for reform in structures and actions is not unreasonable. But its work is set in a context where politicians, officials and commentators, unmolested by facts or evidence, had been shouting about under-performance and inefficiency, and you cannot quite help feeling that this was taken as the starting point on which the detailed work was then based, rather than the other way round.

Now that it’s there, I don’t think we should just dismiss the Hunt Report. But we need to pick apart the bits that have substance and sense, and those that are misguided. But above all, we need to persuade our stakeholders that no national university system, ever, improved its performance by letting the state control it more. Higher educational excellence by centralised target setting? No, absolutely not. If I were wrong in that, the Soviet Union would be even today be wowing the world with the triumphs of its five-year plans. So let us look constructively at what Hunt says, and let us accept that further change and reform – even radical change and reform – is necessary. Let us agree that we need to be accountable, and that we need to be able to demonstrate (as sometimes we are not) that the outputs of our system are really excellent. But let us not conclude that this can be done by perfecting new centralised control mechanisms.

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PS. Over the next week I shall also focus on one or two recommendations made in the Hunt Report which I believe are sensible and should be implemented.

Hunting for a ‘civic and technological university’ for Dublin

January 10, 2011

Last week the Hunt report was leaked, and it will be formally launched tomorrow (I can’t say I’ve received an invitation to the event); but yesterday it was already being implemented by a number of institutions who have let it be known that they intend to make a joint bid for recognition as a new ‘technological university’. The four in question are the Dublin area institutes of technology: the Dublin Institute of Technology, Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology, the Institute of Technology Blanchardstown, and the Institute of Technology Tallaght. In confirming their intentions, the four institutions declared they intended to create ‘what will be the university of the future – a civic and technological institution providing a world class experience for students, develop graduates who will respond to the needs of society, and will stand with the leaders among the technological universities across Europe and worldwide’.

It appears that the four institutions are basing their plans on the following statement in the Hunt Report (page 90):

‘Internationally, a technological university is a higher education institution that operates at the highest academic level in an environment that is specifically focused on technology and its application. When, over time, the amalgamated institutes of technology demonstrate significant progress against stated performance criteria, some could potentially be re-designated as technological universities. Amalgamated Institutes seeking such redesignation should pursue a developmental pathway based on delivering against these performance criteria, which are aimed at promoting institutional mergers and ensuring advanced institutional performance within their existing mission. The Technological Universities that emerge from this process should have a distinct mission and character: this will be essential to preserve the diversity that is one of the strengths of Irish higher education.’

In summary, Hunt recommends that institutes of technology should come together in regional clusters, and that any such cluster could seek to become a ‘technological university’. It uses the latter term as if it had an established international meaning that is separate from the more general designation of ‘university’.I am unaware of any such recognised nomenclature or designation anywhere. However Hunt appears to be suggesting that the culture and ethos of the existing institutes could be preserved if a ‘technological university’ could be recognised as a different type of entity. The four institutions in question appear to have latched on to this quickly and are preparing to initiate the process that might lead to such an outcome, apparently (they hope) in a very short timescale.

I do not myself have any fundamental objection to a re-designation, but would have doubts about whether a distinction between a ‘university’ and a technological university’ is a viable one. There is already room for considerable diversity of mission within the term ‘university’. While the plan of the four institutes should be taken seriously and received and debated positively and constructively, it might not be a good idea to rush this process, and the idea of a separate designation of ‘technological university’ is, to my mind, a doubtful one.