Whatever happened the review of higher education - and its 'forensic' audit?


LEFT FIELD:EARLY IN 2009 the then Minister for Education, Batt O’Keeffe, announced that he was going to commission a root-and-branch strategic review of higher education.

 So the Minister put together a working group chaired by economist Dr Colin Hunt, had them sharpen their pencils, wished them God speed, and off they went. In fact, he also commissioned from the Comptroller and Auditor-General what he repeatedly (and perhaps rather insultingly) called a “forensic audit” of the sector, which was to tell him (and, presumably, us) how well we were using our money. The Minister was pleased with all this, and said a few times that it was the first comprehensive strategic review of Irish higher education.

Actually, that was a bit odd, as it wasn’t even the second comprehensive review; it is just that the last ones had been ignored, including the comprehensive OECD review that had also been commissioned by the government, which had reported in 2004 and had then been left to gather dust. No matter. Mustn’t be pedantic. We humoured the Minister, and all worked with the process. And in return we were promised that the report would be out and changing things by Christmas 2009.

But now, here we are, well over a year and a minister or so later, and it’s not that long to Christmas 2010. And what have we been doing with the strategic review? And the famous “forensic audit”?

Well, nothing, because they aren’t done. Actually, I have absolutely no idea what has happened to the “forensic audit”, as I haven’t heard anything more about it for well over a year. Maybe it’s happening, maybe it isn’t, but at any rate it is shrouded in secrecy. As for the strategic review, that’s been chugging along like Percy French’s West Clare Railway, with the passengers occasionally getting out to push the thing up some hill or other, and with a lot of noise and steam, and the occasional chorus of Are ye right there, Michael? But as far as I can tell we’re nowhere near Kilkee.

There’s no report. Leaks, for sure. But actual conclusions and recommendations for us to mull over? Not at all. Every so often someone pops up to suggest it’s about two weeks away from completion, but then again, it’s about seven months since I first heard that.

Mind you, at this stage not too many people are pinning their hopes on this report. If the leaks are at all accurate, then it’s going to be largely about tuition fees (and whatever it says on that probably won’t change anyone’s mind) and about the restructuring of the sector.

That may excite some people I guess, but I cannot help feeling that we are approaching this all wrong. In higher education we are all too often obsessed with structure and method, and almost completely uninterested in education or pedagogy.

We talk and talk about how we should do things, and largely ignore what it actually is that we should do. All around us, the nature of knowledge has changed and is continuing to change at an extraordinary pace. At the same time, the questions that society is asking of us are changing. It is no longer enough for universities to provide a kind of oasis in which young people can escape from the world while they get acquainted with theoretical abstractions according to a particular school of thought.

Alright, I’m caricaturing, but you know what I mean. Society wants answers to questions about health, welfare, economic progress, security, sustainability and social equity, and it wants us to equip young people to address these from all the various perspectives that may be relevant; and it wants us to work on solutions in our research.

Before we can really say anything of use about how our system of higher education should be structured or funded or managed, we need to ask much deeper questions about what we really expect it to do.

When we have analysed these, it is doubtful that we shall want to have a uniform university sector: we shall almost certainly want a diversity of types and missions, including perhaps some universities that operate on largely traditional lines, and some that are run quite differently. The government can then also undertake a much more intelligent assessment of exactly what the taxpayer should be funding, and what could be resourced by other means.

These are issues that a working group dominated by senior civil servants, however well intentioned, is not really equipped to address. Such a group will, given the current economic climate, almost certainly focus on value for money. But you cannot say anything useful about that if you don’t know what the system you are analysing is supposed to be delivering.

I hate to say this, but I doubt the Hunt Report will tell us anything useful. As we’ve now waited a year longer than we had anticipated, why not wait a little longer again, and in the meantime add some additional (and relevant) expertise by bringing in international experts (which really should have been done in the first place) and conduct a much more thoughtful consultation process.

OK, it’s a nuisance to have to wait further, but right now I fear that the planned report will be ripped to shreds when it sees daylight. It would be better to do it properly. All this is said with no disrespect to the Hunt group, who have tried their best. But they were given the wrong brief and were inadequately equipped. It’s not their fault.

And it can still be put right.

Ferdinand vonProndzynski is a former president of DCU