Bad news travels slow

Delays to a report on the future of Irish higher education have fuelled unease over its proposals. Having seen a draft of the recommendations, Hannah Fearn gets the academy's verdict

November 4, 2010

The past few years have been tough on many in the academy. As demoralising as any cut is the uncertainty about what lies ahead. Academics in Ireland know this feeling too well, for the sword of Damocles has been hanging over their heads for a rather long time.

In February 2009, Colin Hunt was appointed to lead an independent review of higher education that would outline a strategy for the Irish academy's next two decades.

Hunt, an economist and political adviser, duly assembled a task force that called on experts from higher education and the Civil Service to steer the process.

Just over a year later, the report was thought to be on the way. Rumours and leaks about its content were circulating in the press by April, and publication in the summer was expected.

But the release of the Hunt report has been put back repeatedly. Bated breath has given way to something resembling a wheeze of desperation. The report is still under wraps; it is now expected to be released to the public later this month at the earliest.

The prolonged wait has only fuelled unease about its conclusions and the reasons for the delays. Rumours abound about internal squabbles and members threatening to quit the group, and there is even speculation that the delay is a deliberate tactic to allow time to water down the final document, making it more palatable to academics.

Hunt, one of the great and the good in Ireland, is understood to be worried about how the report, and any toxic fallout from it, will affect his reputation.

And of course, the furious reaction in England to the release of the Browne Review, together with the announcement of severe cuts to the country's higher education budget, has also rattled Irish nerves. Irish academics realise that their own Hunt report is likely to echo Lord Browne of Madingley's in some key and contentious respects, in particular around tuition fees, which until now domestic Irish students have been exempt from (although there is a relatively small registration charge).

As we go to press, the Irish government is examining the final report and preparing to approve it for release. However, excerpts from a late draft seen by Times Higher Education reveal the key policies that Ireland can expect to hear announced before the year's end.

At its heart, the report presents a vision in which higher education plays "a central role in making Ireland a country recognised for innovation and competitive enterprise; an attractive place to live and work...a nation with the confidence to play a strong role in global integration".

Achieving that will require flexibility and adaptation: "In the coming years, the nature of the learning community and modes of teaching and learning will change significantly. Higher education funding and systems will support these changes through innovative approaches to research-led teaching and learning, programme design, student assessment and a quality-assurance system - all of which will reflect a new emphasis on nurturing creative and innovative minds."

To that end, Hunt proposes a wholesale overhaul of higher education - from research and teaching to student funding and institutional mergers.

On research, the task force commends the government's major investment in research and infrastructure. It welcomes this year's announcement of €360 million (£315 million) over five years - the largest single investment in Irish research history.

The draft report outlines plans for more multidisciplinary research, proof of commercial returns from publicly funded work and greater collaboration between Ireland's seven universities and its institutes of technology.

On teaching, the draft calls for further integration of research, teaching and learning, right down to first-year undergraduate level. Undergraduates should be able to take more broad-based courses and study interdisciplinary themes, it states, and be given the opportunity to acquire the generic skills employers seek. There should also be a review of the external-examination system and exam grading. So far, so UK mainland.

But another major theme of the draft report is consolidation.

Its stated strategy is to develop a "coherent system" of higher education institutions, "each of significant strength, scale and capacity" and with "complementary and diverse mission roles".

Mergers between universities and between institutes of technology are mooted - but the two types of institution will not be joined except in local research clusters. Although new universities are ruled out, it would become possible for amalgamated technical institutes to gain "technological university" status - a step forward for Ireland.

The current Irish funding model is criticised for being unfit for purpose. With institutions already building up deficits, more public funding cuts are expected later this year, even though institutions have reduced staffing levels by 6 per cent over the past two years.

Acknowledging that funding is a difficult problem, Hunt proposes a return to tuition fees for domestic and European Union students. "It is recommended that arrangements for widening the resource base of higher education institutions over the term of this strategy will include a new form of direct student cost contribution. This could be based on an upfront fee and deferred payment system," the draft report says.

The strategy revealed in the draft may be wide-ranging, but critics argue that it is not robust. The introduction of student fees to fill the yawning funding gap serves only to highlight fault lines in the plans, the Irish Universities Association believes.

"My concerns at the moment are probably more immediate rather than long term," says Ned Costello, chief executive of the IUA.

"Clearly we have a major funding problem now. We have every prospect of significant cutbacks in core funding coming this year on top of last year's. Let's just imagine it wasn't a political problem (to reintroduce tuition fees): you are still talking four or five years before people start paying back their loans."

It would be a long time before the income started to flow into university coffers.

In reality, there is a political problem and it is virtually insurmountable. So far, neither of the two major political parties, Fianna Fail and Fine Gael, has publicly discussed a return to tuition fees (although Fine Gael has spoken of the merits of a graduate tax).

More importantly, the Irish Green Party - which holds the balance of power in the Dáil and is currently in a governing coalition with Fiánna Fail - is ideologically opposed to fees.

The Irish coalition government is teetering after a loss of confidence in the Taoiseach, Brian Cowen, and all parties are courting the smaller ones, including the Greens, who could later help them form an administration.

All this would seem to rule out fees for the time being - if only for political reasons.

Overall, Costello says, the draft report strikes a "good balance" between challenging the sector and recognising the good work it is already doing.

His view, however, is not shared by all who have read it. Others who spoke to THE but declined to be identified raised a host of concerns about the report and how it was drawn up. Among the key charges are that:

• The strategy group was dominated by civil servants and people with a business background who needed a long time to get to grips with the complexity of higher education

• Academics were sidelined, and some high-profile members have threatened to withdraw their endorsement from the final document

• It is impossible to establish how feasible the recommendations are because there is no comprehensive costing

• The report was produced from a top-down perspective that paid scant attention to front-line academics and their understanding of their sector.

It is a damning critique. Ferdinand von Prondzynski, former president of Dublin City University, shares those fears and more.

"It was doomed from the start," he says. "The real problem with this whole process is that the composition of the group is all wrong. The majority of its members are civil servants, including representatives of the Department of Finance, whose angle is going to be different from what is really needed in this process."

The 13-person group featured just one university provost and one president of an institute of technology. Grass-roots academics were not represented, and the sole student voice was provided by a former president of the Union of Students in Ireland, now sitting on the panel as an independent.

There was no consultation over the group's membership, and a proposed shadow group made up of academics focusing on practical implementation failed to materialise. The task force did not commission any research to inform its strategy, calling only for short, written submissions from across the sector.

"The whole starting point was wrong," von Prondzynski says. "The academic angle was hopelessly inadequate...the international expertise element of it was completely missing. They are basing their recommendations simply on the conversations they're having as a group."

Mike Jennings, general secretary of the Irish Federation of University Teachers, is equally underwhelmed.

"My overall impression is that it is not an impressive document. It doesn't strike you as very authoritative. I felt that the consultation with the stakeholders was extremely shallow, and the report really reflects that."

Jennings cites the lack of a serving academic on the review panel as a "major deficiency". He says: "You have a sense of people who don't really have an intimate knowledge of the sector that they're reporting on."

This lack of understanding is exposed, he adds, by contradictions inherent in the draft strategy. How can the report call for consolidation and a freeze on the number of universities while at the same time setting out a road map for institutes of technology to become universities?

In one breath, the draft report declares that all academics should teach as well as conduct research ("and of course we would support that", says Jennings), yet in the next it insists that time and space for research must be protected.

"They have called for some stuff that already exists, and they have called for some other stuff without any evidence of discussion of the alternatives," he says.

Also, Jennings claims that too little attention has been paid to the cost of the recommendations.

But perhaps the thing he finds most disturbing is the ideology implicit in a report on the future of university life drafted by business people and civil servants.

"It treats students as consumers. There is nothing about a community of scholars, and that is the essential heart of the university. There is no understanding that it is quite complex and not a product. Higher education is not an 'event', it's an institution."

Critics fear that the Department of Education and Skills and the Civil Service more broadly have been too heavily involved in the process, with the result that it has been more of a planning exercise than an independent review.

This may be one reason why the draft Hunt report has left many fearing a loss of institutional autonomy. The document envisages a continuing role for the Higher Education Authority in managing the sector - not only distributing funding but also implementing overall strategy - together with a new quality agency enforcing standards.

But the HEA would also be responsible for setting academic and research strategies, which could lead to universities specialising in particular disciplines and research areas.

In a speech to academics in the US delivered this summer, Hugh Brady, president of University College Dublin, warned about the dangers of a loss of academic independence in Ireland.

"We have been blind for far too long to the progressive erosion of the funding base and autonomy of our higher education institutions that is now threatening to undo the impressive achievements of the past decade," he said.

The success of Irish higher education, he continued, could be "washed away in the metaphorical blink of an eye" if these problems were not addressed.

He warned that the Hunt report was "an opportunity to fix or fudge" the issue, a chance either to empower universities or to shackle them to a "central command-and-control model that will condemn them to mediocrity".

At the moment, Brady says he has nothing to add to the points he made in that speech, but it seems clear that Hunt's report will be as unwelcome in his office as it may be at the country's other universities.

For lurking behind the manifold concerns expressed about the report is the big fear that it will ultimately consign universities to a future as units of a large state bureaucracy.

"The idea that the future of the academic view of the world and the development of knowledge be placed in the hands of career civil servants is bizarre," von Prondzynski says. "We'll no longer have universities - we'll have a university system."

Hunt himself, John Hegarty, provost of Trinity College Dublin, and other members of the review group declined the invitation to discuss the content and impact of the report before publication, despite the proliferation of leaks within the Irish media.

They will no doubt have much to say after publication, when Ireland is able to openly debate an approved copy of the report.

Given the government's central role in the review process, many expect the state to begin implementing the recommendations as soon as it is financially feasible.

But a previous review of higher education was completely ignored by the government, even though the recommendations of the 2004 exercise - commissioned from the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development by Noel Dempsey, who was then minister for education and science - were considered sensible by the university sector.

"There is such a low level of expectation (around Hunt) now, and there is a sense of irritation, too," says von Prondzynski.

"The best thing that could happen is that it be ignored, and that may well happen."

IT'S NOT ALL BAD: THE DRAFT VERDICT

The draft Hunt report's view of the strengths and weaknesses in Irish higher education

Strengths

• Sound legislative framework for good governance

• Institutional autonomy and academic freedom

• Responsiveness to the European higher education framework

• Reformed research landscape

Weaknesses

• Funding model's failure to reward alignment of institutional strategy to national goals

• Inflexible provision

• Persistence of inequality

• Growing homogeneity

• Lack of efficiency and scale

• Gender imbalances

Opportunities

• Transfer, progression and flexibility

• Awareness of the strategic importance of higher education

• Strategic planning at the institutional level

• Equality as an opportunity

• Internationalisation

• Opportunities provided by new technology

• Favourable demographics

Threats

• Unstable funding base

• Weaknesses in mathematics and science

• Work practices

Source: Summary excerpt of the draft Hunt report, seen by Times Higher Education

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