That UCD-TCD merger story really caught fire, but who are the big winners and the losers in the whole episode? And who buried the Van Vught report?
First a recap. The Higher Education Authority commissioned a group of international experts chaired by Frans Van Vught of the European Commission to outline the “optimal configuration” for the higher-education sector. Aside from the UCD-TCD merger, the group backed the establishment of one technological university – a halfway house between a university and an IT – based in Dublin and Waterford. It said the current 20-plus third-level colleges should be consolidated into only six.
As one might expect from such a distinguished group, the 20-page Van Vught report is very impressive. It addresses the immense challenges facing higher education in Ireland with great clarity and, unusually, with no vested interest. In marked contrast to last year’s timid Hunt report on the sector, it outlines a bold, radical vision.
Rumours about the report’s radical recommendations began to surface three weeks ago. It was the subject of some chat when university presidents met to award the philanthropist Chuck Feeney an honorary degree.
Two weeks ago, in a letter to college heads, the HEA’s chief executive, Tom Boland, outlined his plans to publish the report on September 24th. Later, he circulated a further letter saying that publication had been delayed pending further clarification and consultation.
The decision to delay publication came after intense lobbying from two university presidents, Philip Nolan of NUI Maynooth and Brian MacCraith of DCU. Both raised concerns that publication would destabilise the sector.
They were pushing an open door. The secretary general of the Department of Education and Skills, Seán O Foghlu, shared many of these concerns. Critically, he also believed that Van Vught represented a significant departure from agreed government policy, which was to implement the more conservative Hunt report.
When Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn (left) was told of these concerns, he decided to pull the plug on the report.
Both the department and the HEA issued statements that rubbished the UCD-TCD proposal and the planned rationalisation.
When the HEA board met in Cork last week there was much soul-searching about the turn of events between the Boland, chairman John Hennessy and senior board members.
Privately, the HEA accepts mistakes were made. A good case remains for the kind of objective external perspective provide by Van Vught and for a deeper analysis than that offered by Hunt. But the HEA failed to make this case to the department. There was also a communications failure between the HEA and the department. Like it or not, the HEA, which is charged with advising the Minister, needed to move in tandem with the department instead of operating unilaterally. But the episode is also troubling for the department. Quinn is fond of saying he’s no educationalist; he relies on experts to frame the best proposals.
In this instance a distinguished international group delivered a report in good faith. But when the heat came on, the Minister backed away from its contents. It may be that some of the report’s proposals are, in the department’s words, “neither feasible nor desirable”, but the report, at the very least, is an important contribution to an important debate.
Can Ireland continue with 20-plus third-level colleges, all of them supposedly offering world-class teaching and research? How do we reverse the dramatic fall in the global rankings of our leading universities? How do we deal with an expected 25 per cent increase in the student population by 2030 with much-diminished resources?
The Van Vught report has been buried even before it has been published. But the awkward questions it raises about higher education in Ireland will not disappear so readily.
The report will (finally) be published later this month. Aside from Prof Van Vught, the expert team comprised Prof Vin Massaro, Michael Gallagher, Prof Laurritz B Holm-Nielsen and John Randall. You will find details of their vast experience and great expertise on a random Google search.
Teacher’s Pet is compiled by Seán Flynn; email email@example.com