Posted tagged ‘university rationalisation’

Does it matter how many universities we have?

December 23, 2010

Over the past two years or so, one of the under-currents of debate on Irish higher education has been the assertion that the country has too many universities. This claim appeared in the government’s 2008 paper, Building Ireland’s Smart Economy, and has since been repeated from time to time by various commentators. As I have pointed out previously, this is a very debatable claim, and if anything Ireland has fewer universities for every thousand of the population than almost any other comparable country.

One interesting comparison might be our Celtic neighbours in Wales. The population of Wales is about 1 million smaller than that of Ireland, but it has 11 universities to Ireland’s seven. Now, however, the Welsh funding agency (the Higher Education Funding Council for Wales) has suggested that this number should be reduced to six, and the Education Minister Leighton Andrews has told universities they must ‘adapt or die’.

The basis of this Welsh policy perspective appears to be that universities, to be internationally competitive, must have critical mass in income – measured against the median university income in England. This argument would need to be developed a little further before it would convince me; it is clear enough that resources need to be adequate to develop strong academic performance, but this should be measured against specific subject areas  and student numbers rather than the overall institutional position. Nor is it clear to me that a higher-income multi-campus university – particularly where those campuses are widely dispersed – is at any kind of advantage over a somewhat smaller single-campus institution.

There are good reasons for analysing much more closely what it is that makes a university viable. The answers lie in its strategic purpose, its inter-imnstitutional links and partnerships, its non-state revenues, its market position, and so forth.  How many universities there are in the country is a relatively uninteresting factor in the analysis, and governments and their agencies should stop obsessing about it.

The new higher education environment

December 2, 2010

Funding cuts and adjustments to traditional academic practices are not unique right now to these islands, they have become a global phenomenon. In Iowa in the United States local lawmakers are planning to end paid sabbatical leave by faculty, long considered internationally as a key element of academic professional development. Sabbaticals allow faculty to catch up with developments in their area, but also to do the research that will support their teaching and scholarship.

Meanwhile the University of Queensland in Australia has announced that it will cull teaching and research programmes that it can no longer afford. This is one of the key research universities in the country, and its move demonstrates how difficult it is now becoming for higher education institutions to maintain a wide portfolio of programmes; many, even long-standing research universities, will increasingly have to limit what they offer and develop a specialist focus.

Furthermore in India employees from a number of universities have held a rally in Delhi to protest about inadequate funding.

We are witnessing a global reconfiguration of higher education, but if we are honest we don’t really know where this is going, or how quality and excellence will be managed in this new environment. The public debate on all this is just a debate about ‘cuts’, in which universities, staff and students are calling for more money. Very little discussion has taken place about a model for higher education that might preserve excellence to the greatest possible extent in the absence of levels of state funding that used to be the norm.

There is an urgent need right now to identify the kind of system of higher education that we might want or would be able to live with and that would be workable on reduced public funding. We need to plan this properly. Changing the model by stealth, on the back of public expenditure cuts, is not the way to go.

Strategic focus

July 14, 2010

In a report in the Irish Times on yesterday’s Inauguration ceremony in DCU, Education Editor Sean Flynn notes the following:

‘The forthcoming Hunt report on higher education is expected to back a new strategy where colleges specialise in certain areas instead of offering a wide variety of courses. This, it is expected to say, will help build clusters of excellence. The Hunt report will also advise universities to forge closer links with other colleges to boost expertise and save costs.’

We still do not know for sure when the Hunt report – the report of the Higher Education Strategic Review group – will be published. The original intention had been to submit it to the government late last year, and subsequently it was suggested it would appear in late spring. None of this has happened, and there are reports that the group may be finding it difficult to reach a conclusion on some of the recommendations. However, information is beginning to trickle out suggesting some broad directions in which the group may be going, and the report in the Irish Times draws on that.

So what should we make of this? Is it a good idea to rationalise the university system so that each institution develops a special expert niche for which it would be known and in which it would develop critical mass? Is there too much overlap of provision between the colleges? Should we have a national system in which the government determines priorities and the universities are charged with implementing them? And if all this is to happen, what remaining significance would there be for university autonomy?

If this is indeed to be the drift of the Hunt proposals, then we had better start engaging with this topic and deciding whether it makes sense. Or if we don’t believe it does, then we had better come up with an alternative model. I shall revert to this tomorrow.