Posted tagged ‘strategic review of higher education’

Irish higher education and a strategic purpose

January 11, 2011

As I write this on the morning of January 11, we are awaiting the formal launch of the report by Dr Colin Hunt’s group on higher education strategy. Just now, if you go to the website of the Department of Education and Skills, and click on the link headed ‘Strategy for Higher Education’, you get a page that tells you that there is an ‘error’ and that the ‘object is not found’. But what is the ‘object’? Presumably a clear vision for the future of Irish higher education.

The early criticisms of the not-yet-published report, including the latest (by my successor as DCU President, Professor Brian MacCraith), all tend to point out that the report lacks a clear strategic focus, or a vision about the future direction of Irish higher education. There is also an early stream of criticism by trade unions.

As I have noted previously, my own view is that the report has avoided pedagogy and scholarly insight for a framework of bureaucratic oversight. It is not too late for those launching the report to indicate that there is a better, more compelling vision underlying it. Let us see what is said today.

PS. The link from the Department website has now been changed (at midday) – though now, rather than linking to the (now published) report, it just links to the HEA home page.


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.

Hunt report: towards a national strategy?

January 7, 2011

Thanks to the Irish Times, we now have a full draft of the Hunt Report (National Strategy for Higher Education) in the public domain. And we know one or two other interesting things. According to the Times, the government’s intention was to publish the report next Tuesday (an event perhaps now destined to be something of an anti-climax); but we also know, from the letter by Colin Hunt to the Tánaiste (Deputy Prime Minister, and Minister for Education and Skills) copied in the report, that the draft version was submitted to the government on August 9, 2010, a full five months ago. What on earth has been going on since then, and why has it taken so long to decide to publish?

Over the next few days, it will perhaps be worthwhile looking at one or two chapters of the report and the associated recommendations. But at the outset it is always useful to look for the key principles, or the big idea, under-pinning the vision of the document. In fact, there is a page in the report with the heading ‘The Vision for Higher Education in Ireland’ (page 15). One could read this and conclude that there is no specific vision other than that everything in higher education should be Very Good; but that would be a mistake. Those who have suggested that there is no vision in this document are, I believe, wrong. There is a vision. But it is not one to which I would easily subscribe.

The key element of the Hunt group’s vision consists of the belief that higher education works best when it works to as coordinated agenda. This is contained in the final ‘high level objective’ of the report:

‘The policy framework for higher education will make national expectations clear. The objectives and operations of the institutions and those of the funding and quality agencies will be mutually aligned, and will be underpinned by a sustainable funding model and clearly defined structures for system governance and accountability.’

A little further on the report states that the key issues to be addressed in higher education reform are ‘system structure, flexibility and resourcing’. In other words, the major idea in the report is that there should be a centrally determined national strategy for higher education, and a set of structures to ensure that this gets implemented by the higher education institutions. The report also emphasises institutional autonomy, and this might seem a little tricky in the light of the main objective, until you get to see what the authors think autonomy actually means. Here’s a key passage in chapter 7:

‘There is a balance between autonomy and accountability. At the heart of this strategy is the recognition that a diverse range of strong, autonomous institutions is essential if the overall system is to respond effectively to evolving and unpredictable societal needs. Funding and operational autonomy must, however, be matched by a corresponding level of accountability for performance against clearly articulated expectations. This requires well-developed structures to enable national priorities to be identified and communicated, as well as strong mechanisms for ongoing review and evaluation of performance at system and institutional levels. The latter requires the introduction of a strategic dialogue between institutions and the State.’

The most important word in the above extract is the adjective ‘operational’, qualifying ‘autonomy’. What the group believes is that the determination of a strategic vision is a matter for the state and its agencies, and is not part of the toolkit of institutional autonomy. What, in their view, makes the institutions ‘autonomous’ is not strategic choice, but their freedom to take operational decisions in implementing the national strategy. It is managerial freedom rather than strategic autonomy. Indeed this view was confirmed to me at a meeting I attended as university president with the group, at which my suggestion that university autonomy implied a right to determine the strategic vision was met with considerable surprise by members of the Hunt group.

This, therefore, is the ‘big idea’ of the report. It is the view that a small country like Ireland cannot afford to have a diversity of uncontrolled institutional missions. In many ways this is an understandable view, particularly when you bear in mind the composition of the Hunt group. If scarce resources are to be spent, in increasing amounts, on higher education, then the money should be focused on national objectives. In that view it might make sense to let the government determine a national strategy and to task a strong national agency – the Higher Education Authority – with the implementation of that strategy through negotiations with the individual universities and colleges. The latter then become agencies themselves, part of a wider national framework.

The flaw in this vision is that it doesn’t work. Universities are at their most innovative and creative when they are allowed to pursue their own vision. So for example, the current German government is busily changing the post-War framework of universities as coordinated government agencies and giving them higher levels of strategic autonomy exactly because the ‘agency’ model has made them under-perform in global terms. American universities became the global leaders they now are from the moment that they were allowed to escape from bureaucratic controls. There is no evidence from anywhere that a centralised coordination of institutional strategies creates wider benefits for society.

On the other hand, there is a strong case for greater focus in a small country like Ireland, and it is not unreasonable to allow some public funding to be used to secure that. However, to make that work the model would have to be much more collaborative rather than directive.

The Hunt report is based on the view that what Ireland lacks in its higher education system is central planning. This, when you read through the details of the report, is its big idea. It confuses ‘autonomy’ with the devolution of managerial powers, and in the process under-estimates the significance of universities as creative knowledge organisations with the capacity to drive strategy rather than just follow it. The report recognises the importance of Ireland’s higher education system and the significance of coordination, but heads for the default option of bureaucratisation. In this sense it represents a missed opportunity, and also introduces a major risk into the system.

The Hunt report – which I had hoped might be subjected to some more discussion and consultation (and research) before publication – is now there and we must engage with it. It may of course not survive the coming political changes. But a wise approach by the higher education system would be to accept some of the broader concerns it expresses, but to push for a different solution.

Strategy during a time of turmoil?

November 24, 2010

There are rumours doing the rounds in Dublin right now that the government is planning to publish the report of Dr Colin Hunt’s strategy group next week. This would, I think, be a serious mistake. There is no way that any political time could be given over the next few months to the issues raised in the report, and any value in the report and its recommendations would simply be lost.

In any case, right now I am highly sceptical that the report will contain anything much of value. It would seem to me to be far better to avoid publishing it for now, and then to subject the draft report to consultation within the higher education sector after an election, before finalising it and, perhaps, publishing it.

The crash, and groping in the dark

November 18, 2010

Somewhere, in Ireland or elsewhere, discussions are taking place about Ireland’s future. For those of us not involved in these discussions, we don’t really know what is happening. Ministers pop up here and there to suggest that some process is under way, or that this or that topic may be part of the discussions. But overall the government is not giving the public a proper briefing. The absence of proper information encourages rumour and cynicism and erodes confidence. Even at this late stage, the government must learn the art of political communication.

In the meantime, for those working in higher education there is a particularly high level of uncertainty, as a new economic and budgetary plan will be determined at the same time as decisions are to be taken on higher education strategy. Craig Barrett, the former CEO of Intel, has suggested this week that investment in education and in R&D is critical for Ireland at this moment: is this point being made in the rescue plans?

The trials and tribulations of the Irish HE strategic review

November 5, 2010

At some point – a very long time ago as it now seems – I attended a meeting, together with all the university presidents in Ireland, to which we had been invited by the higher education strategic review working group chaired by Dr Colin Hunt. I think it must have been the autumn of last year. It was a very constructive and positive occasion, and Dr Hunt himself seemed sympathetic to our cause, and the comments he made about the direction of the group’s thinking made me feel cautiously optimistic as I left the meeting. Back then I was expecting the report to be issued, at the latest, early in 2010.

But now it is late in 2010, and we have no published report. I understand that the report is currently with the government, and that it is likely to be published shortly. And of course we have had reports of leaks and summaries of the content, and none of it fills me with confidence. The bit that worries me most is that, if the reports are to be believed, the group will recommend a centrally coordinated higher education strategy which individual universities will then be required to implement. If this turns out to be correct, it will have huge implications for institutional autonomy and will fundamentally change the nature of the Irish higher education system and turn it into a centrally steered bureaucracy. It may not turn out quite that way, but at the moment that is the risk we face.

In the meantime, the Hunt report has stepped on to an international stage, with a major article by Hannah Fearn on the process, the possible outcomes and some critique in this week’s issue of Times Higher Education. The article makes it clear that some of the recommendations will be resisted if they emerge in the form now expected, and that the credibility of the report is in any case undermined by the process of the review and the membership of the group itself. The Times Higher article, and the nature of the comments quoted (and not just from me), will now make it very difficult for the report to be influential in changing the system.

The key problems with this process have been the skewed membership of the group (dominated by civil servants), the eccentric way in which submissions were sought (discouraging any real analysis), the failure of the group to commission even a singly piece of research in order to ensure that any recommendations could be robustly evidence-based, the absence of any international advice or input, and the delays in completing and publishing the outputs.

I have suggested previously (and I remain of this view for now) that this process has not worked, and that it would be better to take it back to the drawing board so that the group can be widened, the process made more effective, and proper evidence from Ireland and overseas can be assembled. It might be unfortunate if this process has to be delayed further, but that is better than one that is completed without the necessary work having been done and with question marks hanging over the quality of the output.

Higher education: Ontario and Ireland?

October 27, 2010

Last weekend the Irish newspaper the Sunday Business Post published an article in which it suggested that the report of Colin Hunt’s strategic review of higher education will recommend that there should be new controls by the Higher Education Authority on how universities spend their money and what they spend it on. More precisely, the article said that there would in future be ‘agreed targets’ for each university in a number of contexts, and that some funding would be made contingent on these targets being met.

While this would be a new departure for Ireland, it is not necessarily original thinking. A little earlier this year the Higher Education Quality Council of Ontario was asked by the Ontario government to look at ways in which a more ‘differentiated’ university sector could be established. This is the key recommendation of the resulting report:

‘A roadmap is provided indicating how the government can advance the current university system to a more differentiated one. The cornerstone of this transition is a comprehensive agreement between each university and [the relevant state agency] identifying the expectations and accountabilities of each institution including its expected enrolment and student mix, its priority teaching and research programs and areas for future growth and development. In contrast to the practice with the current multi‐year accountability process, incremental funding to the institution would be aligned with its mission agreement, annual progress would be evaluated using an agreed‐upon set of performance indicators, and institutional funding would be continued or removed based on progress towards agreed‐upon goals and targets.’

It would be foolish to dismiss the idea that a degree of differentiation or specialisation of institutions might be a viable strategy, whether in Ontario or Ireland. But the model being contemplated may be more a bureaucratic one than a strategic one, and would establish the idea that central direction of higher education is a winner. It is likely that the resulting system would be administratively cumbersome rather than strategically effective. It would also completely undermine the concept of university autonomy.

I would agree with the idea that the universities themselves should consider ways in which sector-wide collaboration in order to avoid unnecessary duplication could be achieved. But I would be of the view that a new bureaucratic state-run mechanism to enforce specialisation would be wholly counter-productive and would tend to compromise initiative and innovation. Let’s not do that.

Taking higher education reviews seriously

August 29, 2010

Yesterday’s Irish Times contained an editorial comment on higher education funding. In fact, amidst the deepening crisis facing Irish universities and colleges, one thing that has been positive is the amount of attention given to the topic by the media. The Irish Times editorial makes some useful points about the funding gap and the importance of a successful higher education sector if Ireland is to achieve its ambitions for a ‘smart economy’.

The editorial refers to the OECD report on Irish higher education, also commissioned by the government and published in 2004. The international experts working on that report took some considerable time and effort to complete their work, and put forward a number of key recommendations. Six years later, almost none of these have been implemented, and indeed that whole report was put away within months of its publication, and it has not been referred to by any minister (at least in my presence) since then. Instead the government commissioned another report (the Hunt report), covering pretty much identical territory, and making at least some recommendations which are the same as those in the OECD report.

Policy review papers are perhaps sometimes seen as a substitute for action rather than the cause of action. They are commissioned, published and forgotten. In that setting higher education begins to drift, as has manifestly been happening in Ireland.

It is now too late for the OECD report. But work should begin on ensuring that the Hunt proposals do not attract the same fate, but are made the subject of an implementation plan. I also still hope (but without much optimism) that our politicians will understand and accept the crisis facing third level institutions. Declaring strong and committed support for higher education, but withholding the funding to secure it, is not a good idea. It is not a state of affairs that should be allowed to continue.

Higher education’s strategic needs

August 24, 2010

According to today’s report in the Irish Times, the strategic review report group chaired by Dr Colin Hunt will suggest that Ireland’s higher education system needs another €500 million annually to cope with an increase in student numbers derived from increased demand and a government desire to raise higher education participation levels further. However, even if the government were to accept this and had the resources to pay it, that would merely fund additional numbers at the same rate as currently applies to the existing cohort. While such funding may seem the best that could be on offer given the current state of the public finances, we have to realise that it is completely inadequate as a basis for securing an internationally competitive university system; to achieve that we would need another 30 per cent or so more.

While for all sorts of reasons it is clearly difficult for this to gain wide acceptance, for the sake of this country’s future we really do need to grasp the fact that there won’t be enough public money to support a high quality higher education system. This either means that we should now accept that Ireland will have a much lower quality system that will not really be able to support our ambitions to be a ‘smart’ knowledge economy, or we need to look again at how we fund it all. In that sense the Hunt report’s conclusion about student contributions must be right.

But there is a bigger issue here. All around us the traditional understanding, principles and assumptions of higher education are being taken apart, whether as a result of economic developments, changes in public attitudes, government policies or new knowledge insights. I doubt that in 10 years time the global higher education landscape will look exactly like it does today. In this setting a strategic review of higher education needs to ask some fundamental questions about the nature of education, methods of learning, the scope and nature of research, and the role of universities and colleges in society and in the economy. Funding is important, and structures are also in some way, but they should flow from our understanding of how higher education should change. It is this kind of analysis I would have wanted to see as the basis for recommendations for change, and at least based on what we have seen so far that seems to me to be missing. I hope there will be more of this in the report when eventually it is published.

The future of higher education: who does what kind of research?

August 24, 2010

Today’s Irish Times newspaper contains more on the anticipated report of the strategic review group on higher education. One of the recommendations, apparently, will be that research should have a ‘much sharper commercial focus’, meaning that there should be a greater financial return for the taxpayer. Research should also be more closely aligned with the needs of the state and of the private sector.

I am personally not opposed to the idea that there should be some greater strategic focus in Ireland’s funded research, as we simply cannot be world class at everything and need to focus our resources. However, this is already being done, in the sense that research funding is now increasingly made available in a thematic way and with an emphasis on critical mass through inter-instiotutional collaboration. I would however regard any attempt to control the research agenda of individuals and groups within the higher education sector more directly as wholly misguided; so I would hope that what is being suggested here is nothing more than a continuation of what is already in place. As for securing a greater return, at one level that is already happening, in spades: the ability of the IDA to attract knowledge-intemnsive foreign direct investment is almost wholly based on the development of research excellence in Irish universities through research funding. But if the suggestion is that the funding should generate a quicker return in both capital value and revenues it is misguided: these are long term investments, and the value generated by the intellectual property will not increase exponentially overnight. Also, longer term returns will be needed to secure the institutions – the return to the state is, as I have just pointed out, the additional success in inward investment.

The report will also apparently say things about what kind of research should be done by which type of institution, with universities doing both ‘basic’ and ‘applied’ research, while institutes of technology should focus on ‘applied’ research that is ‘closer to market development’. I have become increasingly sceptical about the distinction between ‘basic’ and ‘applied’ research, as the development of knowledge has blurred the lines between these considerably. In fact, I would not really know what to make of these recommendations in the context of today’s best practice.

There is, perhaps, a view in all of this that the oversight of research by state agencies should be more directive, and if so, this is likely to be counterproductive. The state is of course entitled to make its funding of research contingent on certain conditions being met, but this must be balanced against the need to encourage and support academic creativity and innovation, which will often produce very valuable results. A better way of looking at research would be to emphasise its significance for national prosperity (and therefore its importance in each higher education institution), and the importance of coordination of the national effort. But it should not trespass on the intellectual autonomy of researchers or the ability of institutions to develop strategic research objectives. A process of central planning by bureaucrats will not yield results.