We need to talk about the future of third level

Opinion: There is a failure to develop any serious discourse about higher education policy in Ireland, no vibrant research community studying the sector and a reliance on overseas ‘experts’

‘Two-thirds of young people can now expect to enter higher education, compared with a mere 5 per cent for those born in the 1950s.’ Photograph: Thinkstock

‘Two-thirds of young people can now expect to enter higher education, compared with a mere 5 per cent for those born in the 1950s.’ Photograph: Thinkstock

 

The higher education system has become a pivotal institution in contemporary Irish society. Increasing expectations of its contribution to personal growth and career enhancement, and to the economic development of society, have led to greatly increased participation rates.

Two-thirds of young people can now expect to enter higher education compared with a mere 5 per cent for those born in the 1950s. Rising expectations and greatly increased participation, coupled with severe fiscal constraints, initiated a period of intense policy development in recent years.

Currently the main focus is on implementing the recommendations of the Hunt Report’s National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030. This is led by the Higher Education Authority, which has assumed a fresh remit as regulator of higher education, marking a fundamental shift in the autonomy-accountability balance between higher education institutions and the State.

The State-directed reform agenda involves a major restructuring of higher education. It includes consolidation and mergers of institutions and more collaboration, especially regionally, through the formation of clusters. The reform agenda also encompasses changes in funding mechanisms, with an increasing use of performance and funding contracts to incentivise “good performance” and penalise institutions that fail to meet targets. The rise of a more interventionist State is complemented by a rise in managerialism at institutional level, leading to considerable unease among many academics.

There are a number of distinctive features of policy-making. These include: a failure to develop any serious public and intellectual discourse about higher education policy; the absence of a vibrant research community studying higher education; and a heavy reliance on overseas “experts” to set the agenda for change, to recommend policy options and to legitimate particular changes that have already been decided upon. These features are inter-related.

 

Criticisms of current policy

The current policy has many critics, whose targets include: the focus on the economic objectives of education to the neglect of personal development and cultural objectives; the application of market principles and the embrace of neoliberal ideology; the audit culture, which prioritises only what can be measured; and the rise of managerialism.

There is no engagement between critics and policy-makers, and this reflects the failure to develop a research-informed public discourse on the changing role of higher education. The default position seems to be to seek the advice of external experts.

Some of the weaknesses of our policy-making environment are reflected in the National Strategy Report. There is no evidence the strategy group engaged in any primary research or in any detailed contextual analysis of the characteristics of the Irish higher education system. Its recommendations reproduce the policy consensus emanating primarily from the OECD. As such it presents a very competent but context-light summary of current thinking about higher-education systems that would be equally applicable to any developed western country. Its most far-reaching recommendation, about the need for mergers and alliances in the institute of technology sector, is not supported by any research evidence on the scope for economies of scale or on existing levels of duplication in provision.

In addition, there is no discussion of the extensive international research on the challenges of implementing mergers, especially where colleges are geographically distant from one another. This literature suggests that the rationale for mergers in higher education should be based on the core purposes of teaching, research and knowledge transfer, rather than on financial imperatives, and that while there may be scope for long-term cost savings, the process itself requires additional expenditure.

Another important finding from international experience is that merger decisions need to be preceded by a rigorous review of benefits and risks, and potential merger partners need to develop a shared vision and strategic narrative.

 

Shared vision?

In implementing the national strategy, the expectation was that the attraction of achieving technological university status would provide a sufficient incentive to develop a shared vision. However, there is now evidence, notably from negotiations of the proposed merger of Waterford and Carlow, that staff from the different colleges will not necessarily develop a shared perspective. This is especially so where rationalisation of courses and possible staff mobility are involved. It would seem the strategy group, the HEA and the Department of Education have underestimated the complexities of implementing its recommendations.

One of the consequences of the changes in governance and the more aggressive State steering is an apparent reduction in trust between the HEA and higher education institutions, and between institutional leaders and academics. The 1971 legislation establishing the HEA positioned it as a buffer between the government and the universities. Current practice, which has not yet been legislated for, positions an expanded HEA, now funding almost all higher education, as the regulator of the system.

For universities there is an unpleasant irony of State control increasing while State funding accounts for a smaller percentage of income. These changes have not been mediated by any serious public discourse on the appropriate autonomy-accountability balance between higher education institutions and the State. Ideally such an engagement, takings account of the changing role of higher education, would lead to a new “social contract” between the parties.

The achievements of Irish higher education over recent decades have been impressive; these include enormous increases in participation, some modest reductions in inequality and major increases in research output. While the financial sustainability of the system may present the most immediate threat to the system, the longer-term health of the system will require more open and research-informed policy analysis.

  • Patrick Clancy is a UCD emeritus professor of sociology. His book Irish Higher Education: A Comparative Perspective is published by the Institute of Public Administration
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