Posted tagged ‘strategic review’

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.


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.


The higher education debate – where is it, and who is participating?

November 22, 2009

I really must not take myself too seriously, so please read the next sentence with a grain of salt. But I guess I could argue, tentatively, that this blog has provided a forum of sorts for a debate on higher education, where the participants are not only the great and good (if you are reading this and believe you are great and good, my apologies, and of course you are welcome, too). But the blog is a minor contribution in the overall scheme of things, and there are also others which, in different ways, also raise questions about the future of our sector.

But I rather wonder whether we need more than this. Right now the major assumptions which have under-pinned higher education in these island for the best part of a century are being questioned, and influential voices are calling for something which, while its contours are not yet clear, will at any rate be quite different. The view is being expressed that universities need to be more responsive to and prepared to address the major issues and problems of society and the economy, and that academics need to have a working environment which more closely resembles that in other employments; it is probably fair to say that the traditional understanding of individual academic autonomy no longer enjoys general support in society.

Of course we are part of society, and we need to address concerns and criticisms when they emerge. The problem is that the debates on the future are largely by-passing the higher education community. Some key recommendations on the future of the sector are currently being debated by the Steering Group for a new National Strategy for Higher Education, which has two senior academic representatives but is otherwise dominated by civil servants. Discussions are also being conducted from time to time by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Science, which obviously is made up of politicians. There are occasional workshops and seminars, but again these tend to be very high level events.

There is an urgent need to have a debate that gives a voice to the university and college community more widely, thereby ensuring that the debate is an informed one, but also allowing the community to take part in a process which in the end must convince them if there is to be a successful process of change.

I am a strong believer in strategy, and believe that academic institutions like other organisations must be skilfully led through necessary periods of change. But they must also be properly engaged at all levels, and change must not simply be implemented by edict, but must be debated, explained and justified. I think that we do need change, but not any change, and in particular not the kind of change that is really the product of a drive to bureaucratise higher education and impose tighter central controls.

Therefore, the time is right for a better debate within the third level institutions on higher education reform, involving rather more of the community in the sector than has been the case so far. This could involve a number of different initiatives: online discussions, workshops and conferences with good representation, publications and reviews, and so forth. It may be something that I shall push during my final year in my current role.

So what about the strategic review?

March 18, 2009

One if the curiosities of the recently announced ‘strategic review’ is that much of its agenda is likely to be dealt with long before the group appointed gets to report. The issues of tuition fees, rationalization, research priorities and commercialisation all look set to be settled before the summer. It may be necessary to ask: is this review still worth the time, effort and cost?

On the other hand we do need to worry whether there will be a coherent strategy at the end of it all. Time will tell.

Higher education strategy – some further thoughts

February 13, 2009

As we proceed in Ireland with the strategic review of higher education announced by the government, it may be instructive to look back at a seminal report that was published in the United Kingdom just over ten years ago. The report in question, Higher Education in the Learning Society, was commissioned by the British Government under John Major in 1996 with Labour Party support, and the report was published in 1997 after Tony Blair’s Labour government took office. It was produced by the National Committee of Inquiry into Higher Education, chaired by Sir Ron Dearing; it became popularly known as the Dearing Report.

Right at the beginning of the report, the Dearing Committee set out what it regarded as the key elements of a vision for higher education. These were:

  • encourage and enable all students – whether they demonstrate the highest intellectual potential or whether they have struggled to reach the threshold of higher education – to achieve beyond their expectations;
  • safeguard the rigour of its awards, ensuring that UK qualifications meet the needs of UK students and have standing throughout the world;
  • be at the leading edge of world practice in effective learning and teaching;
  • undertake research that matches the best in the world, and make its benefits available to the nation;
  • ensure that its support for regional and local communities is at least comparable to that provided by higher education in competitor nations;
  • sustain a culture which demands disciplined thinking, encourages curiosity, challenges existing ideas and generates new ones;
  • be part of the conscience of a democratic society, founded on respect for the rights of the individual and the responsibilities of the individual to society as a whole;
  • be explicit and clear in how it goes about its business, be accountable to students and to society, and seek continuously to improve its own performance.

These are valuable starting points for any coherent consideration of higher education. There are, it seems to me, two themes running through these elements, and they are (i) the need to give proper support, encouragement and stimulation to students; (ii) the need to engage with society in its broadest sense; (iii) the need for high standards of integrity and accountability; (iv) the need for world class research; and (v) the need for uncompromising excellence in all matters.

It seems to me that on the basis of the Dearing report, and of the challenges we know we face in Ireland, in our own forthcoming strategic review the following questions should be addressed:

  • How can we ensure the highest quality and excellence in Irish higher education?
  • How can universities and colleges be motivated to adapt and change to meet society’s expectations and requirements today?
  • How can we secure much better participation in higher education by people from disadvantaged backgrounds and groups?
  • How can we secure the highest levels of intellectual curiosity and rigour on the part of faculty and students?
  • How can we ensure that the work carried out in universities benefits society to the greatest possible extent?
  • How can the university sector be helped to be effective and internationally competitive?
  • How can autonomy and financial sustainability be ensured in the university sector?

Addressing these issues will allow Ireland to have a strategic vision for its higher education sector, which is now urgently needed as part of our move towards a knowledge society.

A strategy for universities – looking at Scotland

December 2, 2008

In November 2007 the Scottish executive (government), in partnership with the Scottish universities (acting through Universities Scotland) set up a working group to look at the future of the university sector. This group – known by the not necessarily catchy name of the Joint Future Thinking Taskforce on Universities – was given the following terms of reference:

• how to optimise and shape the contribution which the Scottish university sector can make during the next 20 years to the Scottish economy, to Scottish culture and society, and to the political priorities of the Scottish Government
• what opportunities can be created and what barriers will need to be overcome to achieve that
• what resources will be needed and how they will be provided.

The taskforce produced an interim reportNew Horizons – earlier this year, and more recently a number of reports which essentially consider how to implement the recommendations of the interim report.

When the interim report was published, a number of institutions voiced their concerns.  The passage which prompted these concerns most was the following:

“In future, though, the Scottish Government will expect the university sector to demonstrate more explicitly how the funding it receives from the Government contributes to delivering against the National Outcomes, thereby ensuring there is alignment of publicly funded activity against the Scottish Government’s Purpose.” (page 9 of the report)

The concern felt in some Scottish universities has been that the trade-off being suggested by the taskforce – i.e. greater financial and operational autonomy in return for ‘alignment’ with the government’s policy objectives – would undermine institutional autonomy, and more particularly would jeopardise that traditional academic commitment to basic research and the integrity of university decision-making.

In many ways Scotland faces similar challenges to those we are facing in Ireland, though with some differences. In Scotland as in Ireland, tuition fees are a subject for hot debate. And in both jurisdictions the government wants the universities to play a larger role on the international stage.  The strategy process established in the Joint Taskforce is interesting, and has been conducted at a very significant speed. Even allowing for the controversial parts, the report of the taskforce contains an interesting analysis of the sector’s position and some recommendations as to its future. As Ireland prepares to undertake a strategic review of higher education, we could do worse than looking more closely at what is coming from our friends in Scotland.