Higher education must rise to challenge of reform

Fri, Oct 7, 2011, 01:00

OPINION:Rankings serve as a wake-up call for higher education

DISAPPOINTING RESULTS in yesterday’s Times Higher Education (THE) global university rankings, and concern from some employers about the quality of graduates and from higher education institutions at the quality of entrants from school beg a big question: is higher education fit for purpose? There is no doubting the scale of the challenge that is faced.

To the positives first. Our higher education system continues to have high standing nationally and internationally. The THErankings show we perform well when the universities’ performance relative to our gross domestic product is measured. We come sixth, ahead of Australia, the US, Germany and even Finland (often cited for its excellent education system). This means we get a good return on our investment in higher education.

Other positives include the fact that participation, progression and completion rates compare favourably with other Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries. A November 2009 report from EU finance ministers ranked Ireland first in Europe in terms of graduates per 1,000 habitants and first in terms of how employers rank our graduates. Ireland is among the countries where universities are regarded by international peers as being “excellent” and recruiters regard them “as providing highly employable graduates”.

In an independent report last month by PA Consultants for the Higher Education Authority (HEA), Irish companies reported direct benefits to them through investment in research in higher education institutions.

However, we also have inefficient duplication in programme provision; mission overload and mission creep, inflexible human resources practices and a fragmented system of institutions with no national, coherent, strategic focus.

Thousands of adults need opportunities to update skills, while public sector staff require training in more effective ways of working. The demand is for programmes which are flexible to time pressures and practically oriented to the demands of the workplace. We must continue to improve participation in higher education by school leavers. Overall, a doubling of numbers in higher education in the next two decades is anticipated.

As if this was not enough impetus for reform, yesterday’s rankings must give pause for thought. There are shortcomings in such ranking systems, not least in the way they adopt a one size fits all approach and fail to be truly multidimensional.

The European Commission is committed to developing a new performance-based ranking and information tool to radically improve the transparency of the higher education sector, with first results due in 2013. This will move beyond the research focus of current rankings and performance indicators and allow users to create individualised multidimensional rankings. This is the way to go.

But the THEis a reputable publication, and these rankings matter. They influence strategy at home and perceptions abroad. The drop in placing is attributed by the THE to the increased staff-student ratios in our higher education institutions due to funding cuts combined with increased enrolment, and this reflects hard realities in the sector in the recession. Whatever the reasons for our dramatic rankings falls, the report should sweep away the last vestiges of complacency.

We cannot meet the challenges we face under the status quo, so reform is inevitable.

This week the HEA and the Department of Education and Skills began an intensive phase of implementation of the National Strategy for Higher Education (Hunt report) by issuing consultation papers on some of the key pillars of a reformed higher education system (see www.hea.ie). The aim is to see all core parts of the strategy fully implemented or nearly there by the end of the academic year.

The primary focus is on quality outcomes for students, while higher education must form part of a coherent system of education, well co-ordinated from public policy and funding viewpoints, from early childhood to post-doctoral education. The system must feature positive, open relationships between institutions and the State, based on clarity of roles and expectations with more effective engagement in knowledge transfer, both through quality graduates and effective linkages with enterprise.

To achieve enhanced levels of performance, higher education will be formed into a coherent set of interlocking, mission-specific institutions. There will be consolidation and/or linkages with a smaller number of larger, multi-campus institutions. The system will be characterised by high collaboration across all activities, including advanced shared services and central procurement, joint development and delivery of programmes, and joint research. The funding focus will be on performance. The system will feature involvement by private providers.

The pursuit of excellence will still be a key preoccupation. Traditional methods of teaching and learning will be augmented with an emphasis on developing a broader range of knowledge and skills and by the development of creative teaching and assessment strategies, including extensive use of educational technologies. Interdisciplinary studies will be encouraged.

In postgraduate education, structured PhD programmes will become the norm, leveraged by the almost €60 million investment over the next five years under the Programme for Research in Third Level Education. Lifelong learning will be reflected in open and flexible delivery of programmes, backed by funding models and apparent in the seamless movement of learners between second level, further education and higher education.

Underpinning everything will be the sustainability of the system and finding the right mix between public and private funding. The HEA is now completing a report to the Minister for Education on key aspects of this issue. These are our objectives. They are widely shared across the Government and stakeholders. We have the vision and energy to achieve it and to make us world leaders in higher education.

Tom Boland is chief executive of the Higher Education Authority

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