To fix third level, we need to ask the right questions
Leftfield:We are obsessed with the structure of our higher eduction system but other areas need reform first
Here’s a little puzzle. If Waterford Institute of Technology is not fit to be a university on its own, why does it become fit if you add a second college, Carlow IT, which is manifestly not as good an institution?
Or try another:
Almost every study has found that a multicampus university is less likely to succeed than a single-campus one. So why do we think that an institution with campuses all the way up and down the western seaboard is a good idea?
Or how about this:
Ireland has fewer higher-education institutions per head of population than Germany, France, the UK and the US. So why do we keep hearing that Ireland has too many?
Or maybe you might want to reflect on why the higher-education discussion in Ireland is all about structure, and never much about pedagogy and scholarship, or even about impact? What, in other words, is actually driving the higher-education reform agenda?
To be honest, I have no idea. The last decade or so has seen a minor tsunami of higher education reviews. Do you recall Malcolm Skilbeck and his 2001 report? You might remember the 2004 OECD review, which was supposed to solve all our problems. But the government that had commissioned it sort of lost interest in the whole thing, until minister Batt O’Keeffe set up another review in 2009. This became the Hunt report, which in turn has given rise to a whole filing cabinet full of follow-up reviews and reports, not to mention daft ideas.
What have all of these got in common? In the end they have all been about the structure of the system. But anyone seriously contemplating reform will tell you that structure must follow strategy. So therefore, what’s the strategy? This is where I start scratching my head, because the only strategy I can find in all of this is that there should be a different structure. Why we need a different structure is not really clear. Is it because the sector has not been able to handle the increased student numbers? No; Irish higher-education participation is the highest of all comparable developed countries. Maybe it’s because Irish universities are too costly and require more money to educate a student than those of other countries? No, it has been confirmed that Irish universities are amongst the most efficient in Europe, in terms of cost per student.
I don’t want to suggest there are no problems in Irish higher education. There clearly are. There are a number of issues, but mostly they are down to two causes: chronic underfunding, and the effect of a system of secondary schooling that has been distorted by the Leaving Cert, an exam no longer fit for purpose. These need to be addressed first because, without that, all other reforms are useless. The third key problem in the past – the absence of high- value research – was successfully tackled through the Programme for Research in Third-Level Institutions, and by Science Foundation Ireland; but the former required an American philanthropist before it got going.
Somehow the idea has taken root in Government agencies, and maybe also in the public mind, that our higher-education system is underperforming and that this can be solved by a dose of public-sector bureaucracy. So we are to have technological universities built out of clusters of institutes of technology, in partnerships that make little sense, using criteria that are not easy to understand. Universities are to lose a degree of strategic autonomy, just as other countries have suddenly realised that such autonomy is the basis of league-
table success. Ireland is imposing controls just as Germany is dropping them for its previously underperforming universities.
Irish higher education needs reform. We need to ask whether it prepares students for what they and society need; whether demographic changes should change educational methods. We need to look at whether our traditional academic “disciplines” can adequately address today’s problems. We probably need to ask about working methods in colleges. We need to talk about funding. I doubt we need to address structures, or to implement new bureaucratic controls. I really do.
Ferdinand Von Prondzynski, is vice-chancellor of he Robert Gordon University in Aberdeen, Scotland