Share cash burden, Hunt (finally) reports

Students should help pay for funding injection; scholars must work harder. Hannah Fearn reports

January 13, 2011

Students in the Republic of Ireland could face upfront tuition fees and academics a strict appraisal system forcing them to work harder in light of a major review of the country's higher education system.

The long-awaited report by economist Colin Hunt, published on 11 January, calls for an additional investment of up to €500 million (£416 million) in the academy.

But it recommends that some of the financial burden be shared by students through the reintroduction of upfront tuition fees, a new student-loans system and a means test applied to student grants. Without such measures, expansion would be impossible, says the report, National Strategy for Higher Education.

Dr Hunt was appointed chair of the review by Batt O'Keeffe, Ireland's former minister for education, in 2009. This week's report marks the conclusion of a lengthy and much-delayed process and offers a set of proposals designed to steer universities through the next 20 years.

Although the administration that commissioned the review is likely to leave office within two months, Dr Hunt's recommendations may be picked up by its successor.

The report proposes a new means test for student finance based on family assets as well as income, alongside an academic-appraisal system focusing on both the impact of academic work and student contact hours. Teaching and research must have "parity of esteem", it says.

Times Higher Education understands that Dr Hunt was worried about the small amount of time Irish researchers spend on teaching and was keen to ensure that students are taught by leading researchers.

"The quality of teaching, scholarship and external engagement of academic staff must be continuously reviewed in all institutions as part of a robust performance management framework," the report says.

It argues that its recommendations would help to develop a "coherent system" in which universities complement each other rather than competing directly.

As well as measures to boost participation, the report calls for mergers between the Republic's technical colleges and regional clusters.

Institutions would be controlled through a "contractual relationship or service level agreement" between the state and universities, with the Higher Education Authority taking on a greater monitoring role.

Even before the report's publication, four Dublin institutes of technology had made clear their intention to jointly bid to become a "technological university".

Describing the long-awaited report as something of an "anti-climax", Ferdinand von Prondzynski, the former president of Dublin City University, criticised its plans for more central management.

"The flaw in this vision is that it doesn't work. Universities are at their most innovative and creative when they are allowed to pursue their own vision," he said. "The current German government is busily changing the post-war framework of universities as coordinated government agencies and giving them higher levels of strategic autonomy exactly because the agency model has made them underperform."

The report has also been criticised by student groups. Michael Gowing, president of young people's charity Macra na Feirme, said that the means test for grants would prove problematic for the children of Ireland's farmers, a community often "asset-rich but income-poor".

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