Posted tagged ‘Ruairi Quinn’

Sic transit

July 14, 2014

Readers of this blog may forgive me for a very short post today. I have been on a short holiday in America, and have only just returned. This week RGU has its summer graduations, and it is a busy week for me as I recover from jet lag.

However, I would want to note that over recent days, in two separate jurisdictions that both have had cabinet reshuffles, Ministers in charge of higher education have retired from the scene. In Ireland it has been Ruairi Quinn, and in England David Willetts. These are both very different men, but they have shared one thing in common: that they both value and have wanted to engage constructively with universities. One of these Ministers may have views that are rather closer to mine than those of the other, but I have met them both and found them both impressive, in different ways.

All too often university affairs are governed by politicians who have little understanding of higher education and who see their responsibility primarily in terms of where it will take their careers. Neither Ruairi Quinn nor David Willetts were of that kind. I wish both of them well, and I suspect they have more to offer still, and that we may yet get some of their reflections in published form.

Coming to grips – or not – with university autonomy

November 20, 2012

When I undertook the task in 2011 of chairing the review of higher education governance in Scotland (the report can be read here), one of the recurring themes in submissions made to us was the imperative of university autonomy. It was often remarked that the world’s top universities are all highly autonomous, and conversely that highly controlled and directed systems of higher education tend not to feature much in global rankings. This explains, for example, why at least until now German universities have generally not received much international recognition.

However, it became very clear to me that ‘autonomy’ meant different things to different people. For some, it was the ability of universities to maintain the integrity of their decision-making structures in the face of government intervention. To others, it was about the freedom of managerial action. To others again it was all about intellectual freedom.

This difficulty in nailing down autonomy was not a new problem to me. In 2010, just before my term of office as President of Dublin City University came to an end, I was present at a meeting at which Irish government officials resisted the idea that university autonomy was about the freedom of individual institutions to decide their own strategy. To them, autonomy was about the freedom of universities to choose the means by which to implement government strategy. When I put it to them that autonomy could only be meaningful if universities could decide their own strategic direction, I was told that such a view had not occurred to them.

On the other hand of course, where public money is used to fund higher education, it is not unnatural for the government to expect certain outcomes. The current focus in Scotland on delivering better access to higher education for the disadvantaged (which universities support) is an example.

So where is the line to be drawn? Probably not where it is currently being sketched into the picture in Ireland. Amongst the more worrying developments there is the now published report by the so-called ‘International Expert Panel’ on A Proposed Reconfiguration of the Irish System of Higher Education. This report has come up with what it calls ‘an optimum configuration of the system’, consisting of ‘a small number of large, fit for purpose autonomous institutions with the critical mass necessary to determine achievable and flexible missions.’ Not visibly attaching much meaning to the word ‘autonomous’, the panel suggests that this outcome cannot be achieved by voluntary means and must be forced on the system. Leaving aside entirely the very doubtful proposition that larger (‘critical mass’) institutions are likely to gain more global recognition (when Caltech, the world’s number 1 university, would, if placed in Ireland, be the smallest institution in the system), it is notable that the panel attached no significance to the desirability of strategic autonomy.

The Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairi Quinn TD, has indicated he is not in favour of these recommendations. But then again, the government has just issued a new Bill – the Universities (Amendment) Bill 2012 – which, according to an analysis by Brian Lucey in the Irish Times, will allow the Minister to extend government control over payments and salaries within universities. While restraint in payments made by universities to senior staff would undoubtedly have popular support, allowing governments to control this centrally tends, as the horrible Employment Control Framework has demonstrated in Ireland, to stifle initiative and undermine strategy.

University autonomy must be used wisely by the institutions, and must not undermine public confidence in their decision-making. But on the other hand, subjecting universities to central control is not the right response. Governments need to engage in constructive dialogue with higher education to determine how public priorities can be supported within a framework of accountable autonomy. There is no worthwhile alternative. A Soviet model of higher education is not the way forward.

Irish university funding: the continuing uncertainty

November 17, 2011

Yesterday in the Dáil (Irish Parliament), the Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairi Quinn TD, refused to rule out the return of tuition fees. though clearly showing some level of discomfort at the prospect. However, according to a report in the Irish Times the more likely development will be a continuing year-on-year increase in what is now called the ‘student contribution charge’, perhaps to €2,500 in the coming year. All of this is in the context of a major student protest in Dublin yesterday, and the submission earlier this week of a report by the Higher Education Authority to the government on university funding.

It is clear that the Minister has a difficult task – though admittedly one made more difficult by his signing of a USI-organised pre-election pledge not to reintroduce tuition fees (which I argued at the time was not a good move). The problem is that the Irish taxpayer cannot afford to fund universities properly at the current time, but the political establishment does not want fees. In reality of course the ‘contribution charge’ is now a fee, albeit an inadequate one for resourcing purposes.

In all of this there is a risk of policy drift. Right now it is not clear what the government, or for that matter anyone else, wants to achieve in higher education funding. There is no clear strategy and therefore a large amount of confusion as to what will happen next. In the meantime the global standing of the Irish institutions is eroding, which in turn may damage economic regeneration. It seems to me therefore that the key requirement right now is to produce a clarity of purpose. Uncertainty is the biggest risk of all.

Assessing continuous assessment

August 29, 2011

In many ways, notwithstanding technological advances and social and demographic changes, education is still much the same in 2011 as it was a hundred years ago. Today’s student’s experience, from first entry into school to the final year at university, is not fundamentally different from that of previous generations. However, in higher education there has been one major shift: when I was a law student my degree result was based totally and exclusively on my performance in a number of written end-of-year examinations. Furthermore, these were all closed book exams. How I was marked depended on what I was able to remember from my courses and my analytical ability. Well, if I’m honest, analytical ability wasn’t that significant in the mix of things, and I know for a fact (because the examiner told me) that my inclination to add some critical assessment to my answers was held against me in at least one paper. ‘Better people than you,’ the examiner told me frankly, ‘have passed the laws and written the judgements. Your views on them are not material.’ Indeed.

But that’s not the case any longer, and for the past couple of decades there has been a growth of continuous assessment as part of the examining framework. Nowadays between 20 and 100 per cent of a student’s final result in a module may be based on their performance in projects, essays and exercises carried out as part of a continuous assessment programme throughout the year.

Furthermore, in a number of countries this practice has spread to schools. Increasingly the central or exclusive role of examinations has given way to some project work that is counted for the final results. Plans by the Irish Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairi Quinn TD, to reform secondary education in this way have however run into opposition, particularly from the trade unions. The latter have argued that this is not the time to undertake such reforms (given current budget cuts), or that the reform is misguided anyway. Others have suggested that developing continuous assessment in schools prompts the earlier onset of plagiarism, particularly as sources are freely available online.

At one level it seems to me that it is not the role of the teacher unions to have a veto on education policy reform, though of course they are entitled to defend their members’ material interests. But more generally, examination-only assessment in the education system undermines society’s need for educated citizens with critical and analytical abilities and a capacity for lateral thinking. It is time for a proper combination of memory testing (which is also still relevant) and the encouragement of a more intellectual engagement with the subject matter of the curriculum. It is time for these reforms.

Steadying Irish higher education

August 21, 2011

Over the past few days in Ireland there has been some talk about the possible education – and higher education – reforms that may now be planned by the government. This was prompted by a report in the Irish Independent giving details of a paper submitted last year by the Department of Education to the Department of Finance. The context of the paper was the continuing public funding crisis in Ireland, and therefore the search for savings.

The authors of the paper had suggested that what has previously been known as the ‘student registration charge’ (but which under the last Budget of the Fianna Fail/Greens administration was actually designated the ‘student contribution charge’) might rise to €3,000 per annum. Around the same time, as we have already noted in this blog, the Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairi Quinn TD, indicated the there would not be a proposal for a student loan system to fund tuition fees.

The memorandum reported by the Irish Independent probably cannot be seen as representing government policy, in that it was part of the search for a Budget savings by the last government. Nevertheless, the overall mood music now is that there is a serious funding gap, that the taxpayer cannot afford to fill it, and that student contributions may be unavoidable. While this latter point has not ben confirmed by the government, it has not been denied either.

However, important though a solution to the funding crisis is, there is more to be done. The higher education system in Ireland has been subjected to unprecedented criticism and hostility over recent months; its community is facing low morale, enormous pressures due to the consequences of the employment control framework and its impact on staffing levels, and a lack of self-confidence. This is damaging in part because higher education is the key ingredient of economic recovery, and it needs some nurturing and support.

It is important that the structural and financial changes to be introduced in the Irish higher education system proceed quickly, so that stability and sustainability can return. Doing so is ultimately in the national interest.

Securing the future of Irish higher education

August 18, 2011

Irish higher education, the engine that drove the Irish economy forward in recent decades by providing skilled graduates for the major investments by ICT companies in the 1990s and by acting as magnet for knowledge-intensive investment and start-ups over the past ten years or, so continues to face major problems. By common consent – and this includes the view of the Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairi Quinn TD – it is seriously under-funded and cannot realistically perform the tasks set for it. It has been buffeted by public criticism of the quality of its graduates. It has been told that it now faces an era of much heavier regulation.

Over recent years the university presidents have called for the reintroduction of tuition fees in order to off-set reductions in public funding and in order to protect the universities’ ability to compete internationally and maintain high levels of quality.  This call for tuition fees has been accompanied by the proposal that they should be made affordable through the provision of student loans. However, doubts have arisen – prompted in part by the controversial higher education reforms in England – whether students will be able to carry debts of this magnitude and whether in consequence there is a likelihood of significant default or non-repayment of loans.

Now the Minister has announced that, whatever funding framework may be found, it will not involve student loans. He is right to decide the issue in this way. Student loans excessively delay the provision of funds and create a major uncertainty as to the amounts likely to be raised. They also obscure the more urgent need of redirecting some of the fee income (if there are fees) to socio-economically disadvantaged students to ensure that they are not discouraged from entering higher education.

However, given the consensus on the inadequacy of current funding levels, it is now urgent that a resourcing plan for higher education is finalised and announced. The current financial uncertainty is undermining the capacity of the sector to support Irish economic recovery.

Irish higher education: employment control moderated

June 21, 2011

Without much noise, the Irish Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairi Quinn TD, with the agreement of the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Brendan Howlin TD, has introduced some fundamental changes to the not-much-loved ’employment control framework’. Under the revised framework, universities will still  have what the document calls a ‘ceiling’ for posts funded by the recurrent grant, but beneath that ceiling institutions will now be able to act independently. Furthermore, they will be allowed to recruit to permanent posts, which is a particularly important change; under the original framework academic career structures had been seriously undermined.

Posts funded from other sources (including research grants and contracts) can also be filled, and now without authorisation and without any ceiling; but only on a fixed term basis and with full cost recovery.

Of further significance is the fact that promotions, within numerical limitations, will now also be possible again.

The ’employment control framework’ in its original form was doing very serious damage to Irish higher education. It undermined institutional autonomy, it destroyed career progression, it made it difficult and occasionally impossible to organise large scale research projects, it compromised the ability of institutions to plan teaching programmes; in short, it was a disaster. The new revised framework is still not entirely unproblematical, but most of the objectionable aspects of the original have now been removed. This is a welcome development for the higher education system.