New master plan needed for higher education


OPINION:The time is long overdue for the Government to reassert its authority and bring in the changes in third-level education that are necessary, writes JOHN KELLY.

THE RECENT announcement of the UCD/TCD research hub with its quite extraordinary prediction of the creation of some 30,000 jobs over these next 10 years, together with the apparently imminent Government announcement of the reintroduction of third-level fees, highlights the urgent necessity for a root-and-branch analysis of our higher education system.

There is a need for a debate to arrive at a thoughtful and forward-looking definition of the public purpose of higher education so that we have a clear understanding of the role of the higher education institutions in our society and, conversely, of the Government’s understanding of what it expects from them, and having achieved that, to institute a process of accountability to monitor their adherence to an agreed programme.

Performance contracts and accountability systems are being introduced into universities across the world, which are sometimes controversial and generally hotly debated, as indeed academics are wont to do with such major innovations.

In any system of university accountability, it is essential to avoid the bland putting of numbers on to unquantifiable academic activities and rather concentrate on matters such as student enrolment, graduation data, research output, staff-student ratios, governance, management and academic structures, fiscal issues and suchlike matters.

The apparently natural reluctance of politicians and academia to reach agreement on the nature and functions of higher education must be overcome so that this debate engages political, commercial and academic leaders, as well as key community personnel in the restructuring of our higher education system.

The danger now is that the higher education system will drift into some new market-oriented format, with university presidents calling themselves chief executives, and with an erosion of the fundamental mission of higher education, which is primarily the education of the nation’s youth.

Academic freedom which relates to the freedoms on academic matters such as curricula selection, teaching methodology, research activities and publication, and in publicly pronouncing with institutional authority on contemporary issues affecting national or global societies must, of course, be preserved.

However, in governance and fiscal matters, the Government has the responsibility and authority to take whatever steps it decides appropriate to ensure the proper management of the increasingly large public funds which the higher education institutions absorb.

Not since the 1960s, with the analyses of the seminal publication Investment in Education and the Report of the Commission on Higher Education, has the State exercised its authority in making substantial changes in the higher education structures. The time is now long overdue that the Government reasserts its authority and introduces the changes necessary to meet the needs of the current and future generations.

The whole higher education system and society generally will benefit greatly from a widely shared understanding of what it is that higher education does for society and that merits the financial support, privilege, and respect that society provides in return.

In this debate, the following agenda, with summary commentary, is suggested as the key issues which need analysis:

- Governance: The numbers in, and composition of, the governing authorities in some of our higher education institutions are clearly unsuited to the challenges of today and need major change. The role of the Government in making appointments to these authorities must be considered.

- Management and academic structures: The management and academic system should be such that the academic vitality is given due authority throughout the structures of the institution with responsibility to innovate and contribute to the academic development of the institution.

The recent changes in some institutions to greatly enlarge the number and range of top administration positions has resulted in the creation of a top-down management system which is not always helpful to the academic ethos of the institution and the effectiveness of these changes should be considered in this debate.

- Appointments procedures: Top-down appointments to positions of authority in academic structures without any or scant reference to the academic staff that will be associated with such appointments does great damage to the academic ethos and morale in the institution. Universities are very different from commercial businesses so that the conventional line and staff chain of command does not apply in a department or faculty or school.

- Teaching: The methods of conveying knowledge to students are changing.

Courses to introduce newly appointed staff to new teaching technologies are important and should be provided in all higher education institutions. Procedures for student assessment of both curricula and teachers are important and the role of such assessments in staff promotion should be debated, as should the institutional structures and procedures for academic quality assessment and assurance.

- Research: The increased emphasis on research output and the enlargement of PhDs numbers has to be handled carefully so that teaching to undergraduate students is not damaged.

Issues needing to be considered are suggested as follows: the appointment of many internationally renowned research professors who are not required to teach, the pursuit of international university rankings where the criteria emphasise research and science and technology (ST) with scant reference to the humanities, the weighting of research over teaching in academic promotions, all potentially conflict with the mission of the university which is the education of our young people to take a responsible role in society.

The stated ambition of some institutions to become research universities must be viewed against the situation in the US where there are now hundreds of so called “research universities” causing a proliferation of sub-standard PhDs whose research topics and academic standards are reputed to be way below the par of former years. Are we heading in that direction? Must we follow the US in everything? Research is a vital component of university education at all levels but there are dangers of its over-emphasis.

- Industrial innovation: the role of PhDs in industrial innovation and job creation must be open to question. Has the industrial innovation performance of past PhDs ever been assessed and compared to that of ordinary graduates, or indeed of those who have never had the privilege of a university education? The doubling of PhD numbers to 1,000 per annum in the ST, as scheduled by the UCD/TCD Hub is indeed fine, but where exactly are these thousands of PhD scientists scheduled to be released annually into the marketplace by the higher education institutions from 2012 onwards going to go?

And what about business studies, social sciences, economic sciences and humanities, whose graduates contribute in often more profound and important ways to the development of our small country?

How many ST PhD graduates have we in our Government or as chief executives of our leading industries? The newly appointed Innovation Task Force under the chairmanship of the secretary to the Taoiseach Dermot McCarthy (BA, MLitt) has a difficult but very important job to do to in assessing just how industrial innovation is conceived and incubated and how it can be promoted nationally. Perhaps he will consult those eminent non-graduate entrepreneurs, the Michael Smurfits or Dermot Desmonds of this world and any PhDs he can find.

Prof John Kelly is a former registrar and dean of engineering and architecture in UCD and founder/editor of the International Journal, Industry & Higher Education

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