English 'experiment' may need the luck of the Irish to succeed

The coalition's university reforms seem ill-conceived to Ireland's funding chief. Matthew Reisz reports

January 12, 2012

The head of the Irish funding council has described the university reforms under way in England as "a bit of an experiment" that may "put the system into reverse".

In an interview with Times Higher Education, Tom Boland, chief executive of the Higher Education Authority, suggested that the coalition government's changes could be jeopardising a system that was viewed with envy internationally.

"I don't get the impression it's a really well-thought-out strategy in terms of what its implications will be," Mr Boland said.

"You [England] have a very good higher education system. You have some of the best universities in the world. If I had responsibility for it right now, I would worry that what [the government is] doing may put the system into reverse in terms of participation, quality and diversity.

"It may work out well, but I'd like to have better guarantees as a cautious civil servant before I went down that road."

In the meantime, major reforms within Ireland are proceeding along rather different lines.

A national strategy drawn up by the Republic of Ireland's Department of Education and the HEA was published a year ago, setting out such goals as "developing a sustainable basis for funding higher education" and "enhanced performance for the investment we make". Mr Boland said this would put central stress on "a more coordinated higher education system" based on what he described as "directed diversity".

Although he insisted that this was not about micromanagement, he said that it would mean "guiding and directing institutions towards a more joined-up approach".

This year should see some major developments. Mr Boland said the HEA would shortly release a document setting out a "landscape for higher education, the range of provision we believe Ireland needs to meet social and economic objectives and the range of institutions. This will require some refocusing of mission between the two big pillars of the system: universities and institutes of technology."

The funding council has already published guidelines in relation to "regional clusters, strategic dialogue, mergers, alliances and so on", he added.

"Institutions have about six months to define what they see as their strategic future within them, so the HEA can look at all the proposals in the summer and create a blueprint - though not a straitjacket - for the next decade or so."

National objectives

Individual institutions will make agreements with the HEA about how they are contributing to national objectives and what metrics will be applied.

This will enable the funding council to "track how institutions are delivering on their intentions, with some of their funding related to performance".

Mr Boland said this should result in "improvements year on year", but added that he also hoped to see "a more coordinated system" in place within a three- to five-year timeframe.

Even in straitened economic times, Mr Boland said he remained committed to continuing the trend for higher participation rates at Irish universities.

While the rate grew from 20 per cent in 1980 to almost 66 per cent today, he recently told an audience at the Limerick Institute of Technology that "much of this growth (throughout the 1980s) happened at a time when the country did not have employment opportunities to offer higher education graduates. In effect, Ireland was oversupplying the market with higher education graduates, with the result that a large proportion emigrated."

Yet, far from being a "colossal folly and waste of public money", he argued, it was precisely because of this "over-investment" in higher education that "when a turnaround in economic conditions began to occur, many of these graduates returned to Ireland, providing the necessary skills to industry and fuelling further economic growth".

He added: "Let those who guard the public purse today take note."

matthew.reisz@tsleducation.com.

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