For the first decade of the new millennium, I was president of Dublin City University. This decade was characterised, initially, by phenomenal economic growth in the Republic of Ireland, which in turn allowed the state to invest significant sums in higher education. Much of this was spent on developing research capacity, in particular research that would support the growth of a sophisticated knowledge economy. Universities were seen as key agencies in persuading companies, particularly in information technology and the pharmaceutical sector, to locate research and development in Ireland. The success of this strategy was visible in the high-profile industry partnerships entered into by most institutions, including my own.
But universities did more than that. They supported the government drive to increase skill levels by admitting ever larger numbers of students in key areas while absorbing a funding decrease in real terms. In this way, the state was able to secure huge growth in the number of graduates, with vital skills that serviced industries of strategic national importance. Since suffering its disastrous economic downturn from 2008 onwards, the one constant bright spot has been Ireland’s ability to attract direct foreign investment, with a resulting resilience of export activities.
Throughout this time, my fellow university presidents and I argued that all this had been achieved because universities, as autonomous institutions, had harnessed innovation and enterprise, while also supporting excellence in the arts, humanities and social sciences - so important for national well-being.
You might think that this has been celebrated as a good news story. Not a bit. From the beginning of my tenure there was a regular chorus of criticism that universities needed to be reformed and restructured. Some politicians claimed that institutions were inefficient, that what they offered was often duplicated across the sector, that graduates were insufficiently skilled, that academics were overpaid and underworked, that universities were over-administered internally.
In fairness, some academics fed this scepticism by appearing to make the case for a sector that should not respond to economic or political pressures and would resist changes in working practice.
And so we had a decade of higher education reviews. The first, published in 2001, was commissioned by the universities themselves and by Ireland’s Higher Education Authority. In 2004, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development published one commissioned by the Irish government and carried out by an international group chaired by Michael Shattock, the former registrar of the University of Warwick. In 2009, the government set up yet another review, this time chaired by economist Colin Hunt.
The key thing about all these reviews is that they were mostly ignored. The OECD report in particular - which probably showed the most understanding and insight - was welcomed by all but then quietly shelved, for no apparent reason. In the meantime, one particular view of higher education increasingly articulated by various agencies, including the HEA, was that universities were underperforming because of the state’s “light touch” approach. No evidence to back this assertion was ever produced (nor, actually, would it have been available), but by the time the Hunt review got under way it had become an article of faith. So in recent years the theme of reform has been built around the idea that more regulation is needed and that the state’s agencies should set targets for each university. Institutional autonomy would thus shift from strategic autonomy - in which universities decide on their own mission, within the context of available resources - to operational autonomy, in which they are presented with strategic targets and are left only with the discretion to decide how to meet them. How a system of centralised bureaucratic controls will improve performance has never been explained.
In addition, from 2008 the government and its agencies began to claim that there were too many universities in Ireland. Again, this claim has never been substantiated, not least because the country has fewer universities per capita than almost any comparable nation. But again this has taken root in state thinking and has led to some improbable suggestions about mergers and new configurations (perhaps the most bizarre of which were contained in a review commissioned by the HEA and conducted last year, without consulting anyone within the system, by four international experts). Last week, the HEA itself issued a document suggesting a possible configuration of what it calls the “higher education landscape”: in it the institutes of technology would merge, with universities remaining separate but absorbing smaller colleges.
There is no doubt that every university system, including Ireland’s, needs to adapt, develop and change. It is quite likely that there are inefficiencies and some entrenched practices that should be reviewed. But there is no evidence that the system as a whole is unfit for purpose, and plenty that it performs exceptionally well. It is time to stop seeing Irish higher education as an activity requiring more bureaucratic oversight, and to accept that its future success will come from creativity, independence and enterprise.
Ferdinand von Prondzynski is principal and vice-chancellor of Robert Gordon University, Aberdeen.