Posted tagged ‘programme for government’

A new programme for government in Ireland: the implications for higher education

March 7, 2011

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.

Let Ireland be open for innovation

March 3, 2011

As the political parties in Ireland sift through the entrails of the general election, and as Fine Gael and the Labour Party discuss a possible programme for government, let them not repeat the mistake of the outgoing Fianna Fáil/Green coalition in rejecting nuclear power and research into genetically modified organisms in their original programme. This presented Ireland as a place in which innovation was not particularly welcome.

There are, I know, valid arguments that can be raised against nuclear power and the distribution of GMOs. But there is no valid argument against doing further work on, researching into or analysing the possible benefits of either. It is time for us to take a mature approach rather than indulge in knee-jerk positions.

The government, fees and such stuff: some last comments

October 11, 2009

Of course the dust will settle over the past few days, and normal business will resume. But when that happens, we will need to know how to plan for a future for higher education that is sustainable and that delivers acceptable quality. Right now it seems to me that the government parties have entered into a commitment – i.e. the commitment not to introduce higher education tuition fees – that is really about protecting people from a cost, but they have not considered what that will mean for the higher education sector and how it can remain viable.

This was brought home to me strongly in listening to both John Gormley (Leader of the Greens) and Mary Hanafin (Fianna Fail, and former Minister for Education) on RTE’s This Week today (you can hear the interviews here). John Gormley described his party as the ‘party of education’, and stated that the country needed to ‘invest in education’ – but from the uncertain nature of his answers it became clear that he had given no thought whatsoever to the implications for higher education of the removal of fees as an option and that he had no formed opinions as to how the sector might be funded. Curiously he implied that the universities might lessen the impact of the decision by raising the registration charge, though he hoped they wouldn’t.

Of course before yesterday none of us knew whether the government would drop the ‘free fees’ scheme. But we understood that as part of the discussion about the future national strategy for higher education the option of including student contributions to the cost of education was being considered. The revised programme for government has resulted in this option being removed from the table. John Gormley’s emphasis on the need to ‘invest’ in education might suggest that increased funding will be considered as an option, but we all know it won’t. Realistically the government really couldn’t do that, the national finances won’t allow it. But in any case, we know that higher education is always an early casualty of national budgetary problems, and as a result the state has been an increasingly unreliable funder, combining funding reductions with a desire to impose ever greater controls. This is not unique to the current government and the parties that make up the coalition: I recall the Fine Gael/Labour coalition of the 1980s doing exactly the same thing.

What we have is a political system that claims to want world class higher education but which is prepared to do very little to help bring that about. Only in developing a programme for high value research have politicians in recent times shown some imagination and innovation. But even that imposed pressures on the system because the full costs of research were never wholly met.

And now, as part of an attempt to justify budget reductions, we are subjected to criticism and innuendo that suggests that we are wasting resources and perpetuating inefficiencies, and that only government control can improve this. We are a sector in peril. This will be the time for the university sector to show decisive and strong leadership, not just in our interests but in the interests of the country and future generations. Higher education quality, on which our economic prospects depend, is easily destroyed and only very laboriously restored over a lengthy period of time. Let us hope we don’t now produce the evidence for that proposition.

OK, definitely no tuition fees …

October 10, 2009

The revised programme for government is now out, but oddly enough has (as far as I can tell) so far been made available only by the Green Party. Understandable perhaps, as it’s the result of their initiative. So it’s not surprising also that party members have adopted the programme enthusiastically. Here’s what it has to say on higher education:

Higher Education

• Conscious of the economic pressures on parents today, this Government will not proceed with any new scheme of student contribution for Third Level education.

• We will develop Higher Education Strategy to deliver a longer term vision and shorter term policy objectives for the sector.

• Examine the potential for greater co-operation and/or amalgamations between institutions to enhance system-wide performance reflecting the current economic reality

• Establish a new statutory agency to carry out the current functions of NQAI, HETAC and FETAC as well taking on responsibility for the external quality assurance of universities. Related functions of the NUI are also being examined in this regard.

The only one of these bullet points that matters is the first – the others describe processes already under way anyway, and don’t represent a change – though I might argue with the implications of the third point, suggesting current under-performance, and as I have mentioned before, the merging of quality assurance bodies may turn out to be damaging.

The decision regarding fees, however, will come back to haunt us. It is a bad decision, made for the wrong reasons. I have always accepted that the motives for the original introduction of the ‘free fees’ scheme were honourable, and that the parties at the time believed that this would widen participation and make available an equitable system of higher education. But now we know that is not the case, and this time the reasons are, I suspect, purely electoral. As the taxpayer is in no position to increase funding, or even maintain the existing totally inadequate levels, we are now facing a situation where the increasingly scarce resources will be concentrated on the wealthier sections of the population and the disadvantaged will be neglected. In addition, the sector as a whole will be asset stripped and will be unable to compete.

I know that there are others who, for perfectly understandable reasons, will not agree with this analysis. But I have been at the coalface now for a decade of trying to maintain a world class system of education with the resources that increasingly reflect the aspirations of a developing country. This decision may save votes, but will do long term damage to the sector. It is a bad day for higher education.

So no fees, then

October 10, 2009

According to media reports, the revised programme for government agreed between Fianna Fail and the Green Party includes a commitment not to reintroduce third level tuition fees. We had already known that this was one of the demands that the Greens were making in the negotiations, and now it appears that this was accepted by Fianna Fail. It is probably wise not to comment in detail until we have seen exactly what has been agreed, and in particular what arrangements (if any) for funding higher education have been included.

If however there is no commitment to increase funding – and in the current economic circumstances I don’t know how any such commitment could be given – then the decision to abandon the possibility of fees could in the end amount to a decision to abandon the project of a high value knowledge economy. But I’ll wait for the details and then comment further.

Interesting times.

After Saturday, le déluge?

October 9, 2009

I think we had better start looking at what may be about to happen in Ireland. As I have mentioned in a previous post, right now negotiations are taking place between the two parties who (with some independent members of the parliament) make up the government of this country right now. The Fianna Fail negotiators have been presented by the Greens with a list of demands, most of which are focused on more public expenditure and fewer or even no cuts. This is, as far as I can see, balanced only by demands for higher taxation for the rich. I have no idea what Fianna Fail is taking to these discussions, but I imagine that fiscal prudence is right there in the party’s folder. Actually in truth I don’t really know what anyone is bringing to the discussions, because the Fianna Fail and the Green Party websites aren’t disclosing anything. In fact, they don’t have as much as a brief comment on all this, so you might actually begin to believe it’s not happening at all. But it’s happening all right, and the outcome of all this will be settled on Saturday, when Green Party members have to approve that revised programme by a two-thirds majority if it is to be adopted.

What rather scares me in all this is that the Greens appear to me to have issued a set of completely impossible demands, which they must have known are likely to prove unacceptable to their partners. So either Fianna Fail reject them, in which case the Green Party leadership will surely find it hard to persuade members to vote for staying in government; or else Fianna Fall agrees, or there is a compromise, in which case various changes and reforms come to an end, with perhaps damaging consequences for Ireland’s reputation.

Why does all this matter to me? Because there are several processes under way in the higher education sector that have the capacity to subject it to fundamental change. They are the higher education strategic review, the discussion about tuition fees (and a decision on this expected very shortly), the reform of quality assurance oversight, and so on. Some of these initiatives will fall with the government, if this is what happens. As a result, it would be likely that urgent higher education decisions will be long-fingered. Of course there will be no pause in the impact of the recession. And this is a combination of things that we cannot afford.

Well, all we can do is wait and see.

Green education

October 1, 2009

Some people who might have thought that there has been a Fianna Fail/Green Party coalition for the past couple of years with an agreed programme for government  might be surprised that, with no general election in sight, there are new negotiations between the parties for a new coalition programme. In fact, the formal reason for the demand by the Greens for a new programme is that we now have radically changed economic conditions; but I suspect it is in reality not unconnected with the Greens’ concerns they could be mauled by the electorate should there be a voters’ backlash against Fianna Fail at the next election.

Anyway, whatever the real reason, the Greens have announced a party convention on October 10 at which they will put any agreed new programme to a vote. But the implication is that if they cannot get agreed revisions or if the convention does not support any such revisions, then the coalition is over and we are then going to have new elections. Oh well.

Back to the substance. Yesterday the Greens issued their proposals, or rather their demands for the new programme. Well, more a shopping list. As far as I can see, they want to see all spending up and all taxes down (except for taxes on the nasty rich). And amongst the new or restored spending would be education spending. Generally they want education spending restored to what it was before the cuts of autumn last year, they want no tuition fees for third level and no increased registration charge. And whatever you’re having yourself.

Don’t get me wrong, I’d love to see all education spending restored to its former state (and preferably then some more). As readers of this blog know, I’d be more sceptical about the merits of continuing with free fees. But in any case, we need to stay real. I cannot see how all this can be achieved, either politically or economically. And so I am now beginning to wonder what the outcome of this approach is intended to be; and what we can now expect in terms of education policy.

It all seems curious to me, because whatever the trend in the opinion polls may be, Green Party ministers have been rather good, and have I think enhanced the quality of the government. That government in turn is currently weighing up major proposals on higher education. And now I am concerned that everything will be up in the air, and I fear for what will happen to us.


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