Well, we now know for certain who will form the new Irish government: it will be a Fine Gael/Labour coalition. The two parties confirmed yesterday that their negotiations had been concluded successfully, and they have published their programme for a Government for National Recovery 2011-2016. The version on the Fine Gael website (referenced above) is not as user-friendly as the version published by the Irish Times, as the latter is properly paginated.
The programme begins with a ‘Statement of Common Purpose’, which was presumably intended as a mission statement for the coalition. It is maybe a little high on slightly cheesy rhetoric and some painful mixed metaphors (‘The stroke of a pen, in thousands of polling stations, created this political whirlwind’), and it is overly fond of incomplete sentences and dodgy syntax; but it does set the scene for the more detailed plans that then follow.
For the purposes of this post I want to take a look at what the coalition is saying about higher education. This can be found on page 43 of the document, and the relevant section has the heading ‘Third Level Reform’. Here is the section in full:
‘We will review the recommendations of Hunt report on higher education. A reform of third level will be driven by the need to improve learning outcomes of undergraduate degree students, as well as providing high quality research.
We will initiate a time-limited audit of level 8 qualifications on offer and learning outcomes for graduates of these courses.
We will introduce radical reform in third level institutions to maximise existing funding, in particular reform of academic contracts and will encourage greater specialisation by educational institutions.
We support the relocation of DIT to Grangegorman as resources permit.
We will explore the establishment of a multi campus Technical University in the South East.
We will extend the remit of Ombudsman to third level institutions.
We will merge the existing accreditation authorities; National Qualifications Authority, FETAC and HETAC to increase transparency.’
Leaving aside the ombudsman and the ‘Technical University in the South East’, this represents a promise that the new government will on the whole continue with the higher education policies of the outgoing Fianna Fáil/Greens administration. It could be argued that only one of these statements appears to have any real significance, and it is the one promising ‘radical reform in third level institutions’. This suggests that there will be no new or additional funding, but a continuing bureaucratisation of higher education. The ‘reform of academic contracts’ is likely to mean that the institutions will be forced to include more detailed obligations in contracts of employment. ‘Greater specialisation’ suggests a higher level of centralised control of universities and colleges through funding mechanisms.
I confess that, at first sight, none of this looks very promising to me. There is no sense of understanding of the crisis in higher education, no recognition of the sector’s resourcing needs, and a belief that instead more centralised control can achieve higher standards (for which there is absolutely no empirical evidence).
This lack of engagement with higher education is the more disappointing as the provisions in the programme on primary and secondary education are much better and show a greater understanding of what issues need to be addressed.
There is a separate section on international education (page 13), which states that the ‘objective will be to double number of international students studying in Ireland, particularly targeting students from India, China and the Middle East’ (there is actually an argument for diversifying the system away from over-reliance on these three regions). Whether the target of doubling international student numbers (which has been mentioned previously in Fine Gael documents) makes sense is debatable.
The programme also considers the country’s research agenda (pages 9-10). It intends to establish a ‘National Intellectual Property protocol’ to govern the commercialisation of IP from universities. It is hard to know exactly what this will mean, and so judgement must be suspended for now – though again there is a hint here of state control of individual university policies. If it means instead that there is to be a framework of IP support to enable efficiency and transparency of process it would potentially be a good thing. The coalition appears to intend to continue with the programmes of Science Foundation Ireland, but it seems to believe – mistakenly – that SFI only supports ‘basic research’ now. It intends to establish ‘Technology research Centres’, apparently with the aim of facilitating the commercialisation of university-based research (though it’s possible that this is about something else entirely).
It must be recognised that government programmes are negotiated and written in haste, and it is understandable that not every detail has been worked through in terms of its implications. Nevertheless, this is the programme, and it contains worrying elements, with a recurring theme of greater direct government control of university programmes and policies. We may know more when some of these are explained in more detail by the new ministers. Who will fill the key posts now becomes the key issue.