Cloak and dagger tactics no good to Ulster

March 14, 1997

Higher education planning for Northern Ireland is on 'a confidential basis'. This is bad for students and a threat to university autonomy, argues Norman Gibson.

"The future of higher education is a matter of the greatest importance to the whole community," said the Northern Ireland Higher Education Council in its first annual report.

It therefore seems extraordinary that the council's advice to the Government has to be "on a confidential basis". Would it threaten the security of the jurisdiction if the advice was made public? Or is confidentiality just a useful cloak for the Government?

The council, set up in April 1993, operates under "a letter of guidance" and advises the Government "on a confidential basis" on the planning and funding of higher education. Unlike the councils for England, Scotland and Wales, it is not a funding council. Funding is the responsibility of the Department of Education for Northern Ireland.

The council is required to "formulate its advice in the light of the work of the Higher Education Funding Council for England". More specifically, the council must determine what the allocations of resources and student numbers would be if HEFCE methodologies and policies were employed. Only then may it "consider what account (if any) (sic) should be taken of particular Northern Ireland circumstances".

In furnishing its advice it must "seek an assurance from HEFCE that its recommendations are broadly consistent with HEFCE policy" and that the "views of both universities . . . are . . . given suitable consideration" (emphasis added).

The watchword is broad parity of provision with England, even if this conflicts with regional priorities. With such confidentiality the public has no way of knowing what advice the council gives to Government or how much of it is accepted or on what grounds.

DENI's Strategic Plan for Education 1996-2000 makes it no clearer. The plan accepts the need for additional university places, for "greater diversity of provision" and for closer collaboration with the further education sector but there is no indication of what any of these might mean or what the time frame might be.

Yet the issues are not new. In particular, it has been known for many years that around 40 per cent of new full-time Northern Irish undergraduates attend institutions outside the province. For some this is not the preferred option and is a serious burden for students from manual backgrounds. The council's 1994/95 annual report suggests it is because of competition for places locally.

In short, there is no strategic plan for higher education or - if there is - it is not in the public domain. This is a serious omission.

Northern Ireland urgently needs to develop a coherent overall strategy: it is physically separated from the rest of the United Kingdom while many of its students move across its common border with a member country of the European Union. It is cultural, social and economic distinctive, in a state of persistent civil turmoil. It has only two local universities and a relatively small number of other institutions active in higher education.

As a minimum that strategy needs to embrace the two universities, the higher education activities of the 17 further education colleges, the two teacher training colleges and the nursing colleges (the latter are in process of being integrated with Queen's University) and should of course be linked to the outcome of the Dearing review.

It is doubtful if such a strategy has, or will be, put before the committee. The council is to "advise (Dearing) on those issues which are of regional significance to Northern Ireland".

But must it be taken for granted that such a strategy has to be the prerogative of government? The two universities, Queen's and Ulster, have their individual corporate plans but unless these were to be prepared collaboratively and in cooperation with other institutions it is difficult to see how they could begin to present what is required. Yet not to do so essentially leaves the planning, development and funding initiative in the hands of government.

This approach has profound consequences for higher education, and not just in Northern Ireland. (DENI has now presumed to issue a mission statement for the two universities; yet each is a private body with its "objects" or mission laid down in its royal charter).

Inexorably, government will subordinate higher education to its own purposes, not because of antipathy or a supposed malevolence but because it would be against its perceived interests to do otherwise. Higher education will be just one of many priorities competing for scarce resources.

If higher education at its best is to advance knowledge, learning and understanding through teaching and research, and to inculcate professional and intellectual skills and standards of detachment and objectivity, then it needs its own "space". It needs a political, social and economic environment, a form of autonomy, which helps to make these things possible. If this is not to be, then not only higher education but society, perhaps imperceptibly, will be the poorer.

But the "space" referred to requires resources; human, physical and financial. The latter will not be forthcoming from government, or not on the scale, conditions and terms that are necessary. Higher education needs to seize the initiative in bringing forward proposals for its financial viability.

For higher education to fulfil its "objects", a cardinal principle is that as far as possible funding comes directly from those who purchase its teaching, research and related services. Universities should determine their own fees and charges with Government responsible for a means-tested grants system for students, supplemented by an imaginative student loans system, preferably owned and run by universities. These issues will not wait.

Norman Gibson is emeritus professor of economics at the University of Ulster and a former pro vice chancellor for planning and research.

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