Posted tagged ‘Tom Boland’

The right time to make an enlightened career choice?

April 27, 2015

Young people today go through various stages of their educational formation at which they, or someone on either behalf, make choices that will have a clear effect on the trajectory of their careers. At school they decide which subjects to take or keep taking – they lose mathematics, they lose a whole array of potential choices. They choose a university, they choose a course. And before they have any real experience of life they have often painted themselves into a corner of life from which they can no longer escape.

This has become so complex that ever more detailed advice needs to be given at an ever earlier age – as was done by the Russell Group of UK universities in a guide to post-16 subject choices:

‘It is really important that students do not disadvantage themselves by choosing a combination of subjects at A-level which will not equip them with the appropriate skills and knowledge for their university course or which may not demonstrate effectively their aptitude for a particular subject.’

Do we force specialisation on students too early, and do we help them to make intelligent choices? One contribution to this debate was made recently by the Chief Executive of Ireland’s Higher Education Authority, Tom Boland, who in a debate in Trinity College Dublin on enlightenment values suggested the following:

‘It is hardly in line with principles of the Enlightenment to force students into narrower and narrower subject choice options and deny them a broad first year experience with a focus on developing critical thinking and analytical skills.’

It is an interesting comment, but it is set against a backdrop of trends not in keeping with the ideal; and in particular, the trend to shorten higher education programmes – which in turn makes it much more difficult to have a liberal arts approach to the early stages of higher education – and the trend of turning secondary schools into the ante-chamber of higher education, rather than a forum for intellectual formation in its own right, using its own principles.

There is of course no single correct answer to the question in the title. But there are some wrong answers. Fording specialisation on young people at too early an age is one of them; not least because if we do so, the choices will often not be made by them, but for them. And that is wrong.


The future of higher education: the key issue is autonomy

September 6, 2011

The recent speech by Tom Boland, chief executive of Ireland’s Higher Education Authority, on what he called ‘directed diversity’ prompted a lively debate in the comments section of this blog. The key element of this speech appears to have been the proposal that  universities will need to have their strategic objectives approved by the HEA, to ensure that these are in line with government policies and that there is no unnecessary duplication of provision.

The proposal as described will almost certainly be strongly opposed by at least some groups of lecturers, perhaps because it could remove the discretion from universities as to how to plan their teaching. Some lecturers with this perspective argue that  national strategic coordination will remove the relative freedom and discretion that academics currently enjoy.

However, there is also a wider university dimension. The autonomy of universities is protected in Ireland by the Universities Act 1997, and any change in current practice would arguably require a new statute. But leaving aside the legal dimension, the autonomy of universities ensures that they can address the educational, social, scientific and cultural issues of the day and respond imaginatively to them.  Furthermore, autonomy is not about having the right to decide how to implement strategic objectives that have been set. Rather, autonomy is about determining those strategic objectives in an independent manner.

I doubt that a framework of ‘directed diversity’ can work, because it will have to handle too many inherent contradictions. I would strongly argue that institutional autonomy must remain a major higher education strategy. I am not convinced that Tom Boland’s vision, if implemented, would allow that to be the case.

The future of higher education: ‘directed diversity’?

September 3, 2011

In Ireland, the chief executive of the Higher Education Authority (Ireland’s higher education funding council), Tom Boland, has just made a very interesting speech in which he has set out his vision for the future of the system. It is worth setting out verbatim the key passage in his speech:

‘The first and most crucial reform envisaged is what I’d like to term the end of the era of laissez faire in higher education, and its replacement by what might be termed “directed diversity”. By laissez faire, I mean the strategic approach to higher education which has had at its centre light touch regulation – a term that has now become deeply unpopular and not just in financial circles. While light touch regulation has brought us much success in higher education, including soaring participation rates and a standard of higher education which is good by any benchmark, it has also given us unnecessary and inefficient duplication in programme provision; it has given us mission creep; inflexible staffing structures and practices and it has given us a fragmented system of institutions with no national, coherent strategic focus…

… We now need to transform Irish higher education from a set of institutions operating in isolation into a coherent, well co-ordinated system of higher education and research.’

A little later he added:

‘Through this process I believe we can build a higher education system which concentrates investment in multiple centres of excellence, right across the system; which brings coherence to these centres as a whole system; which encourages collaborations where these make sense from the viewpoint of a quality student learning experience; which greatly enhances accountability by greatly enhancing the quality and comparability of data on the performance of the system, and which ensures that we have diversity of institutions offering a wide range of provision combined with clear institutional focus on national goals. This is what I mean by the term “directed diversity”.’

The question addressed by Tom Boland, which is one that had also been examined by Ireland’s recent report on higher education strategy (the Hunt report), is whether the strategic development of the higher education system should flow from the decisions of autonomous universities or from a nationally coordinated plan, however that plan might be constructed. His conclusion that national coordination is necessary is not unique in global higher education.

All of this addresses the key issue of university autonomy, what it means and whether it is important; or indeed if it is important, how it should be exercised. These are the absolutely critical issues of higher education. They will determine its future nature and direction.

Reinventing the university: conference in DCU

June 4, 2010

As I have mentioned previously, DCU will be hosting a major conference on the future of higher education. This will take place on June 15 and 16, under the title of ‘Reinventing the University: Creating a New Vision’.

Speakers will include the Tánaiste, Ms Mary Coughlan TD; the Chief Executive of the Higher Education Authority, Mr Tom Boland; the chair of the higher education strategic review working group, Mr Colin Hunt; Dr Michael Crow, President of Arizona State University; Dr Bill Harris, former Director General of Science Foundation Ireland; Professor Colm Harmon, Director of the UCD Geary Institute; Dr John Hegarty, Provost of Trinity College Dublin; and Professor Sir Alan Wilson of the Centre for Adanved Spatial Analysis of University College London. And there’s me, and my successor in DCU. There will also be a roundtable discussion involving a number of participants, including a student representative and Sean Flynn of the Irish Times, which is co-sponsoring the event.

More details are available here, and I hope many readers of this blog will want to be present. All are invited.

Opening up the professions

May 16, 2010

Whether one might agree with him or not, the chief executive of the Higher Education Authority, Tom Boland, has encouraged public debate on third level issues by raising a number of issues in the media, and indeed in this blog. His most recent contribution, reported in the Irish Examiner newspaper, raised the question of diversity within the professions. His point was that some of the key professions – he listed law, medicine, veterinary medicine and pharmacy – were in effect a ‘closed shop’ with access restricted by a single professional organisation.

Furthermore, he suggested that it was difficult for people from ‘outside high-earning families’ or ‘from lower socio-economic backgrounds’ to enter the professions and succeed in them. A significant proportion of those entering these professions come from families where the parents were also in one of the professions, whereas only a very small minority come from the ‘lowest paid social categories’.

It seems to me that in this context we need to re-assess the role of the major professional associations. Generally such associations are private bodies, but they exercise what are essentially public functions, not least in that they determine who can and who cannot enter a profession: they can grant, withhold and remove a person’s livelihood. Furthermore, entry restrictions put in place by professional associations create distortions in demand for the relevant university programmes, thereby raising the points levels artificially.

Tom Boland is, in my view, right in calling on professional bodies to consider how there can be greater diversity in their memberships. But perhaps we ought to go further: we should look again at the whole concept of a private association, with monopoly control over a particular profession, regulating access to that profession. I would suggest that this is no longer an acceptable way of managing entry. Furthermore, the universities and other colleges (which in practice have to deliver programmes geared to the requirements of these bodies) should be given a more autonomous role in vocational education for these professions, which in turn should perhaps largely be done at postgraduate level.

It’s time for change.

The view from the HEA

May 10, 2010

Guest blog by Tom Boland
Chief Executive of the Higher Education Authority

I feel a certain trepidation as I begin my maiden voyage in the blogosphere.  It’s not as if I go boldly where no man has gone before, but I must at least go boldly.  I’ve avoided this medium of communication so far basically because there are so many others that do the job just fine for me.  But Professor von Prondzynski has “smoked me out” with his recent comments on university mergers – “Mergermania”.

Ferdinand was commenting on my reported remarks in the Irish Independent on 29 April.  The point I had sought to make in a speech to a conference on “Transforming Public Services” was that in higher education we face very considerable challenges, including the combined challenges of growing levels of participation of school leavers, together with meeting the skills needs of those already in the workforce at a time of significant resource constraints. We cannot meet these challenges and continue to have a high quality higher education system unless we do things very differently.

Part of that different approach, in my view, involves the higher education institutions, especially the universities and the institutes of technology, working together in a more co-ordinated and coherent system of higher education, where each contributes according to its strengths to achieving national (as well as institutional) objectives.  Universities cannot seek to be all things to all comers – a point which Ferdinand appears to accept in his blog posted May 9 (Philosophical questions).  Alliances and collaborations in areas such as programme development and delivery, joint appointments, research and knowledge transfer, that are customised to fit particular purposes, should be part of that new approach.  Such arrangements may over time lead to closer union of the institutions concerned where this makes sense from an institutional and national perspective.  Why not?  The issue is not so much that we need universities of a particular size but that it is difficult to see how we can resource the present structure and ensure quality outcomes with the current fragmented system of stand alone institutions.  The cross institutional collaboration or merger of departments, schools and, in time, even whole institutions is one way towards stronger, better resourced institutions and a better service to students.

While I’m in this space I would like to comment on an unrelated matter, prompted by the up-coming retirement of my host on this blog, Professor von Prondzynski.  For a variety of reasons trust has been lost by a significant number of people in a wide range of important institutions – politics, the broader public service, the Catholic Church, bankers – the list goes on.  Such a widespread loss of confidence is probably unprecedented, and certainly very unhealthy for our society.  On the other hand, our higher education system continues to enjoy a high level of confidence for its capacity to deliver what people need in their lives and careers.  In a situation of a general loss of trust, could this confidence be put to wider public service? It is noteworthy that our academic leaders are not generally part of the public discourse on matters that affect our society and economy.  Individual academics are of course often to be found in the media commenting on their special area of expertise.  But what of the role of university presidents as thought leaders and commentators in our society – on topics other than higher education?  In response to this question some time ago a president replied to me, only half facetiously, that they are kept too busy by the state in trying to make ends meet.  And I acknowledge some truth in that.  But it’s not the full story! I believe that the leaders of higher education have the capacity to make a contribution to Irish society and to the debate about our future beyond their already significant contribution to higher education itself.

President von Prondzynski, during his term as President in DCU, has been an exception to the general rule, having acquired and retained a high visibility as a university leader with views to express, who is prepared to express them. Even if one does not always agree with his opinions his voice, at least from his present perspective, will be missed.


April 30, 2010

There it is again. Once again we are being told that we have too many higher education institutions. This is how the Irish Independent yesterday reported comments by Tom Boland, chief executive of the Higher Education Authority (HEA):

‘Ireland has too many universities and colleges that must now merge to survive, the head of the State’s third-level funding body has warned… Mr Boland said the number of HEIs had to be reduced in the interests of creating institutions that have a reasonable critical mass of students and can compete globally. Mr Boland added the system of funding and regulation must be reformed to encourage and specifically support this consolidation. The HEA chief also called for an end to unnecessary duplication of provision within the system.’

This topic has been covered in this blog before, but it may be worthwhile reiterating one or two key points.

First, it is impossible to say on what basis we would have ‘too many’ universities. As I pointed out previously, measured against the size of our population Ireland has fewer universities than most developed countries. Ireland (the Republic) has 7 universities, serving a population of 4,460,000 (according to 2009 estimates). In other words, we have a university for every 637,000 people. The United Kingdom has 132 universities for a population of 61,113,205: one for every 463,000. Germany has 250 universities for 82,060,000 people: one for every 328,000. France has 269 universities for 65,073,000: one for every 242,000. Switzerland has 45 universities for 7,739,000 people: one for every 172,000 people. And the United States has 1,900 universities (give or take) for 307,745,000: one for every 162,000.

Secondly, there is absolutely no evidence to support the contention that larger universities are able to compete more effectively in the global environment. In the most recent Times Higher Education global rankings, most of the top 10 universities are relatively small by global standards. Princeton University, coming in at number 8 in the rankings, has 6,708 students, while Caltech at number 10 has only 2.245; both of these would therefore be smaller than any Irish university. The number 1 university, Harvard, is smaller than either UCD or TCD. In fact, not a single one of the global top 10 universities would, if in Ireland, be the largest institution. Conversely, not a single one of the world’s 100 largest universities features in the global rankings at all. In short, there is absolutely no evidence to suggest that larger universities perform more strongly than smaller ones; if anything, the evidence goes the other way.

Thirdly, the history of university mergers is not helpful. Many of them have failed. Indeed, the only one of any note that took place over recent years that seems to have worked is the merger between the University of Manchester and UMIST, though even there it would be fair to say that the merger has not produced the improvement in the league tables that had been predicted. Most mergers cost a lot of money and take a long time to settle down, if indeed the merger succeeds at all.

The problem here is that we appear to be developing a national policy based on asserted benefits which are in fact totally unsupported by any evidence whatsoever. We need to ensure that these plans and ideas are subjected to proper scrutiny and not just blindly accepted.

All of this is annoying also because calls for mergers distract from the discussion, which I agree we should have, about the appropriate distribution of provision and the avoidance of duplication. Here too the case is not as simple as might at first appear. But I shall return to that in another post over the next few days.

Becoming a cramming factory?

February 4, 2010

It’s that time of year again, and the deadline has passed for applications to the CAO for student places in 2010-11. Of course we don’t yet know how this will be distributed across Institutions, programmes and courses, but what we do already know is that this year sees a record number of applications, as young people opt for the safety of a better qualification. We are told therefore that numbers of applicants are up 10 per cent on last year.

Of course, this is not just any other year, and any increase in the number of students could create problems, as the additional students will receive no extra funding at all. This means that the services – including teaching – that are offered to students will inevitably be affected.

It’s hard to know what universities should do at this point. On Tuesday and Wednesday of this week the RTE radio programme Morning Ireland looked at the impact of additional student applications, and also considered information coming from students quoted on the programme. suggesting that, with previous cuts, higher education institutions were  becoming ‘cramming factories’. On Wednesday the chief executive of the HEA, Tom Boland, was on the programme accepting that the additional student numbers would cause a burden, but suggesting that during the current economic difficulties it had to be a case of ‘all hands on deck.’ He also suggested that students should be prepared – to a greater extent than in previous years – to receive an offer for a course that had not been top of their list.

It is hard to argue with Tom Boland’s call to the colleges to come forward and help. It is easy to see that for the next year or two, and maybe substantially beyond, the sum paid to colleges by the government for educating each student will be much lower than it was only two years ago. And it is likely (and probably right) that the institutions should support the drive to bring greater numbers into higher education, at least up to a point.

However, there are also some issues we need to address.

• Are we clear on how many students, or what percentage of the age cohort, we are able to take in without fatally compromising quality and standards? What steps should we be taking to avoid such erosion of quality?
• As funding continues to be much lower than before, and as both school leavers and mature students indicate a desire to go into (or return to) higher education in significant numbers, are we clear on what model of third level pedagogy we should now adopt, given that the traditional model is becoming less workable?
• As in all these circumstances it is becoming more important than ever that students leave secondary education well prepared for the methods and objectives of higher education, are we doing enough to enter into a dialogue with the secondary sector and with the Department of Education to ensure that we have a shared understanding across the education sectors and institutions of how this process of preparing students should be undertaken?

The main problem that we face at the moment is not that we are being asked to do more with the same or decreased funding, but rather that we are doing this without any consensus about these issues and therefore without any real understanding of the objectives and methods of higher education in this new climate. In short, we are muddling through. In the first moments of economic crisis this was understandable, but now it will no longer do. This isn’t about higher education structures or institutional issues, but rather about how we can offer our programmes with reduced resources while maintaining acceptable (or preferably, excellent) quality. If we don’t get this right, then we are probably heading for inadequate cramming factories. But I believe we have it in us to do better than that.

Higher education: quality vs. quantity?

December 1, 2009

The chief executive of the Higher Education Authority, Tom Boland, writing in yesterday’s Irish Times, has pointed out that Irish universities and colleges need to address the question of whether a quality education is still possible while we target increasing student numbers resourced by declining funding. The point is not a new one – it has been made in this blog – but it is significant that the head of the government’s funding agency is addressing it.

In the article Tom Boland suggests that the current participation rate in higher education – around 65 per cent – could be declared to be ‘enough for now’, at least in the absence of more money to fund further increases. Increased recruitment could at a time of finite budgets significantly lower the funding per student, with serious quality implications.

A similar if slightly more nuanced approach might be to say that while we have a sufficiently high participation rate, the overall figures hide some distortions, in particular the unacceptably low participation by lower income groups. This might suggest that the only growth should be in recruitment from such groups, perhaps at the expense of places for those who have traditionally dominated the system. We also need to bear in mind that some of the most urgent pressures for growth relate to postgraduate programmes (including the PhD), and while this also raises funding issues, as a country we have not yet recruited enough such students.

At any rate, Tom Boland’s paper is a useful contribution to a debate he rightly suggests needs to become more vocal.

A new heavy touch?

June 14, 2009

The Irish Times on Saturday carried a report of a speech by Mr Tom Boland, the chief executive of the Higher Education Authority, at a conference in the Dublin Institute of Technology:

‘Mr Boland said the era of light-touch regulation by government of higher education was drawing to a close. This approach, he said, has “given us unnecessary and inefficient duplication in programme provision. It has given us mission creep, inflexible staffing structures and practices and it has given us a fragmented system of institutions which to a very great extent stand apart and aloof from each other.’

Tom Boland is a good friend of the university sector, and we need to take seriously what he says. Furthermore, there is little doubt that one of the biggest issues facing us over the period ahead is the nature and extent of the framework of regulation and the degree to which universities are externally directed. We also need to accept that his characterisation of the system quoted above is widely shared in the political system, and also more generally in society.

Some people working in universities may not find it easy to recognise the description of the sector. For the past decade universities have added large numbers of students for comparatively little additional money, they have become good at developing and maintaining strong research partnerships with each other, they have become much more serious at strategic planning, they have undertaken large-scale internal reforms, they have introduced quality assurance system, and much more. So is the sector still suffering duplication, inflexibility, fragmentation and a lack of cooperation?

We need to avoid the temptation to be defensive, and so it is only fair to say that there are still problems in the sector that need to be addressed. The view that some rationalisation is necessary, at least in terms of the avoidance of duplication of some courses, may not be unreasonable, and it is probably true that there is some fragmentation. On the other hand, there is no evidence at all that tighter bureaucratic controls are the answer, particularly as in most European countries the view is gaining ground that internationally competitive universities thrive in systems where there are lower levels of regulation and control.

But it is also impossible to avoid one other conclusion: that universities have been extraordinarily bad at communicating the quality of what they do and the extent of the changes they have undertaken to their stakeholders and to the wider public. We may feel that we have implemented all sorts of changes and provided hugely cost-efficient programmes of study; but this is not how we are seen by others.

I hope that the era of light touch regulation is not drawing to a close. But if we want to preserve and enhance autonomy and independence of action, we need to show a much greater sense of coordination and common purpose, as well as an ability to maintain efficiency and value. This needs to be pursued in partnership with the HEA and with government, but in the context of a clear sense of direction that we are able to demonstrate. And we need to have strong and articulate voices speaking on behalf of the sector to the general public.