Third-level institutions cannot function in isolation


Leftfield:The higher-education landscape has reached a tipping point. Growing international competition; increasing privatisation and the challenge posed by Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs) mean that on a global scale, higher education is in a state of metamorphosis. At home, increasing student demand, funding challenges, a proliferation of choice and calls for programme rationalisation, alongside concerns about admissions systems, have brought the sector to a transition point.

The Higher Education Authority (HEA) has published proposals for the future of higher education. One thing has emerged from these proposals: institutions can no longer operate in isolation; they must collaborate. In the past the focus was on individual institutions, but now the HEA envisages regional clusters or ecosystems of higher education within geographical boundaries. These will be composed of diverse institutions co-operating to meet the social and economic needs of the country. I have long argued for a network of collaborating institutions, each of which develops and maintains excellence in selected complementary areas.

There are almost 40 publicly funded institutions serving a population of 180,000 third-level students. Regional clusters will allow higher education providers to rationalise programmes, facilitate optimum use of scarce resources, eliminate duplication, ensure quality, compete internationally and create a variety of pathways for learners. Regional clusters will respond to the needs of students, and their expectations in terms of career, personal and professional development. Clusters will also respond to the needs of employers and the wider society.

The configuration of, and the structures governing clusters will be influenced by the ambitions of institutions, but the needs of students and the wider society are paramount. Institutions exist to serve students and society.

A cluster will comprise a group of institutions; each with a particular profile according to discipline mix, student profile and level of research intensity. Each member has a specific role to play. Universities might reasonably be expected to provide masters and PhD programmes, while institutes of technology (IoTs) would provide certificates and diplomas, with degree-level qualifications shared between institutions. Specialist colleges would continue to provide niche programmes.

The element of the HEA proposals that has created the most debate is the creation of technological universities (TU). A TU is expected to provide programmes, from certificate to PhD level, that should be vocationally and professionally oriented and include work placement. TUs will focus on applied research and work closely with regional enterprises.

The HEA has published criteria for the designation of an institution – or merged institutions – as a TU. The criteria reflect international standards and expectations of what constitutes a university. It is important for the international reputation of our third-level system that they are adhered to. This will mean a very small number of TUs. The investment required to meet the standards for designation as a TU is significant. And, in chasing university status, the IoTs run the risk of neglecting their original student base.

This latter point is important.

The institutes of technology were established to meet the need for certificate and diploma programmes, and it would be unfortunate if we lost sight of that need.

Furthermore, creating new universities, technological or otherwise, will create a drain on already stretched resources, and further compromise our ability to match international standards.

The HEA’s approach sets out a sound blueprint for the sector. Its commitment to collaboration between diverse institutions to meet student need, while maintaining international standards in establishing technological universities, are positive.

In short, the policy position is clear. We now move to implementation. Have the Department of Education and Skills, the HEA and the third-level institutions the capacity to implement the policy? Or will we, as so often in the past, compromise implementation to satisfy short-term local political need?

* Dr Jim Browne is the president of NUI Galway

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