Thursday, January 03, 2013

Higher Education Landscape

There is no doubt that in Ireland's desperate economic situation that Education budgets are under threat. The Government is asking how to get more for less. The Higher Education Authority (HEA) last year asked for submissions from all third level colleges to express their views as to how the third-level system should be reformed as the current system has "led to mission drift, confusion over the role and mission of institutions, growing institutional homogeneity, unnecessary duplication and fears about the quality and sustainability of the system".

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It would appear to me that the HEA is not best pleased with the responses they got. The HEA states in an Analysis of Submissions document that the "submissions leave much of the system unchanged" and that the "commitment to formal and effective regional clustering is weak and little evidence emerges that there will be any significant level of voluntary course or faculty rationalisations". 

The seven Universities appear not to want to change very much (with the exception of DCU who have proposed a new Institute of Education). The Institutes of Technology express a desire of "first preference for independent status" though there is some evidence of "preparedness to form larger institutions as a means of achieving technological university status". 

The worrying thing for me, and for the National College of Ireland (NCI), is the tough talk in the analysis document in relation to smaller Colleges like ourselves. First, the HEA state that under the National Strategy, smaller colleges are "unsustainable and not eligible for continued public funding unless they formed close associations with or merged with larger institutions" and that the colleges are "not uniformly expressing a desire to make this change and some have made a case for continued independence for strategic reasons". The HEA concludes that "central authority would inevitably be required to force institutions either to limit their course offerings or to rationalise them in consultation with another institution, without the power to ensure that negotiations take place in an effective and timely manner while not jeopardising the system as a whole" - tough talk indeed.

NCI seems to be a particular target for the HEA, and it is worth quoting the entire paragraph from the document (page 23) here:

The National College of Ireland is in discussions with both DCU and NUI Maynooth to develop a strategic relationship. It is envisaged that such a relationship would enable NCI to retain its “autonomy and independence while creating tangible initiatives that will improve quality, scope of provision, access and pathways for students within the region”. The NCI has developed a reputation as a second chance institution which any change in its status should protect. However, as a small college it will remain vulnerable, so in light of the National Strategy objective to reduce the number of independent smaller colleges, it would seem logical that it be encouraged to proceed to a full merger.

The message from the HEA to NCI is clear - merge with another institution, or go it alone without state funding. Either scenario could mean severe rationalization with the threat of jobs cuts hovering over us for some time to come. The words of Corporal Jones of Dad's Army: "Don't panic, don't panic!" come to mind as I'm sure that any change will take time (maybe even years) to achieve. There is a lot of negotiation still to come, and also don't forget that both third-level educators and students make a powerful lobby. I just get the impression that there is somebody in the HEA and Government who is out to make a mark here with a slash and burn policy that will be both dramatically change education in Ireland, and have serious consequences for all involved in the provision of third-level education.


  1. Yes, it does feel like there are promises being made by the HEA with no analysis of how they might be met. In theory you could save money by cutting places in a subject at institution A and passing them to institution B, but this assumes that: (a) there is sufficient infrastructure at institution B for the new students – no new labs or libraries needed, (b) students will travel and not simply change to a different subject to stay at institution A and (c) you can cherry pick staff from institutions A and B to get fewer staff per student (this is the only part that actually saves money – we could assume that all the staff at institution B are better than those at Institution A, but this seems very unlikley). Given the cost and time for redundancy committees and payments (not possible under Croke Park at the moment, but we will have to assume this changes) I can’t see any quick changes and it would be very easy to get bogged down having made unpopular decisions. And at the end of it we would have what? Larger courses with lower staff:student ratios, leading to weaker educational outcomes and negative influences on University League tables (for those that care about them).

    1. Thank you for your comment - you make some very good points that I am in agreement with. Still a biger worry for staff in NCI as we are not covered by the Croke Park Agreement - any merger would be a disaster for us. I feel as if we have targets on our chests and all we can do is wait until a trigger is pulled.