Third-level colleges urged to forge closer links


ANALYSIS:The Hunt Report calls for increased funding – but colleges are asked to be more efficient too, writes SEÁN FLYNN, Education Editor

THE LONG-AWAITED Hunt Report runs to over 200 pages and provides a comprehensive overview of the third-level system.

There is no Big Idea at its core and little that will surprise. The report draws freely – and sometimes at length – on earlier reports on higher education and the skills deficit. Its key finding – that a “persistently” underfunded system requires major additional supports – is an echo of the 2004 OECD report on higher education in Ireland. This also backed a quantum leap in funding and the return of student contribution through fees or loans. But it has never been implemented.

On research, Hunt wants a much sharper commercial focus. It says a key principle in commercialising intellectual property should be that the gross return is to the economy – and not solely to the college in question.

Universities will, it says, be expected to engage in basic and applied research while the institutes will be expected to have a particular role in applied research, “closer to market development and enterprise support with a critical regional support dimension”.

There is a need, it says, to find new ways to link higher education research to the needs of the public and private sectors. It favours greater mobility between academics and the public and private sector; it backs a new programme to facilitate academics who wish to provide expertise to the private sector through part- or full-time secondments.

More generally, it says: “If we are to build a long-term sustainable approach to the funding of research, we need to address how we build a belief in the value of research across all disciplines. All undergraduate students should be introduced to the excitement of research from an early stage . . . through contact with leading research staff.”

On teaching, Hunt wants all newly qualified academics to complete a qualification in teaching and learning “ before they are established in their positions” – with a similar requirement for all promoted staff.

It also back a feedback system to address student concerns.

Colin Hunt, a former economic adviser to Brian Cowen, says the future structure of the system will be “aimed at developing a coherent system of higher education institutions, each of significant strength, scale and capacity”.

The report says there should be complementary and diverse mission roles for each college in meeting the needs of the wider society. It also favours collaboration on a “regional basis between clusters of colleges” to ensure that “individual, enterprise and societal needs are addressed in a planned and coherent way”.

The report is implicitly critical of the manner in which the seven universities and 14 institutes of technology work. It gives the impression that each college has carte blanche to do its own thing – without reference to overall national goals.

It seeks to replace this with revised arrangements where the Higher Education Authority would drive much closer monitoring of spending and closer links with Government targets.

On a more basic level, it clearly favours a overhauled system with fewer colleges and much closer collaboration.

But it warns that “formal mergers between the institutes and universities should not in general be considered on the basis that this would be more likely to dilute mission diversity across the system”. However, it says the universities and institutes should work in partnership as part of vibrant regional clusters.

The group says “a process should be put in place to allow the institutes that have emerged from a process of consolidation to apply for designation as a Technological University. Such applications would be reviewed on the basis of published criteria, having regard to the level of achievement of the institutions against . . . performance expectations.”

The group says it is not convinced that there is a case for the establishment of any new universities under the 1997 Universities Act.