The Hunting of the Snark

National Strategy for Higher Education logo, via the HEA websiteAs I have observed on this blog in the past, The Hunting of the Snark is a nonsense poem written by Lewis Carroll, which describes “with infinite humour the impossible voyage of an improbable crew to find an inconceivable creature” (Williams and Madan (1974) via wikipedia). We have waited so long for the Hunt Report that it has taken on much of the mythical quality of the “inconceivable” Snark. In February 2009, the Minister for Education and Science established a high level Strategy Group, chaired by Dr Colin Hunt, to develop a National Strategy for Higher Education in Ireland. The Report does not seem to be on the relevant page of the Higher Education Authority (HEA) website, but the Irish Times has today published a draft of the Report on its website (pdf). There have already been many press pieces and blog comments on the Report, so I’m only going to highlight a few of the recommendations that I find particularly interesting.

The Report is a difficult mixture of platitudes (“Ireland’s higher education system has played a major role in the development of Irish society and the economy”) and management jargon (“Ireland’s higher education institutions need to continue to break new ground in research of the highest standards across the spectrum of disciplines and activity”), but that is probably inevitable. For all that, it does say some very important things. First, it identified various goals for a third level strategy, including:

  • We need to develop critical mass in our research capacity, to ensure that we attract the best researchers and develop world-class capability in high-value niche areas.
  • We need to fund higher education in a sustainable and equitable manner that will guarantee wider participation and fairness of access.
  • We need structural changes in the higher education system to ensure greater effectiveness and efficiencies, and we need to ensure that institutions cooperate and collaborate to mutual benefit.

Second, the Report says that the strategy it suggests “is framed against a range of new challenges that are facing higher education. The capacity of higher education has doubled over the past twenty years and will have to double again over the next twenty.” Hand in hand with the expansion in participation in higher education (in particular by various non-traditional students), the Report envisages improvement in the quality of the student experience, in teaching and learning, and in the general university environment. Moreover,

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.

In the context of research, the Report argues that “Ireland’s higher education institutions need to continue to break new ground in research of the highest standards across the spectrum of disciplines and activity”. And it encourages the dissemination of such research in the context of open engagement with wider society, and as part of a global endeavour.

Third, implementing this vision will require changes to the way universities currently do things. On the one hand, the Report recognises that “a diverse range of strong, autonomous institutions is essential if the overall system is to respond effectively to evolving and unpredictable societal needs”. On other hand, it argues for

… well-developed structures to enable national priorities to be identified and communicated, as well as strong mechanisms for ongoing review and evaluation of performance at system and institutional levels. A new contractual relationship or service level agreement between the State and the higher education institutions should be established, as part of a wider strategic dialogue, and this should be used to ensure that the requirements for performance, autonomy and accountability are aligned. Through this process, institutional strategies will be defined and aligned with national priorities.

This seems to take away far more autonomy that it acknowledges. And the Report goes further:

A reformed Higher Education Authority should have responsibility, on behalf of Government, for engaging with institutions to enable them collectively to meet the national priorities, without wasteful duplication. … The system should be strengthened by the development of regional clusters of collaborating institutions (universities, institutes of technology and other providers), and by institutional consolidation that will result in a smaller number of larger institutions.

Fourth, none of this will be cheap. The Report recommends both the introduction of a direct student contribution, based on a combination of upfront fees and an income-contingent loan scheme, and the concommitant reform of the current core grant funding model for higher education institutions, in favour of an allocation formula that provides core funding for all students combined with funding based on flexible working arrangements and an annualised delivery of contracted work loads.

Finally, the Report makes a series of recommendations relating to teaching and learning (make them better), research (universities should do more, especially by increasing the numbers of PhDs; government should provide more funding), engagement with society (a good thing) and internationally (ditto), governance (Ireland’s autonomous institutions should be held accountable for their performance to the State on behalf of Irish citizens – which means that they’re not really autonomous at all), collaboration between institutions (a framework for this is necessary), consolidation (of smaller institutions), and funding (fees, and more govenmrent money).

This Report finds itself in a similar situation to the Browne Report did in the UK. It was commissioned by one government, but arrived in time to be implemented by its successor. With an election in the offing, the extent to which the Hunt Report is implemented will depend on the policies in the manifestos of the party or parties which will constitute the next Government; more to the point, it will depend on the extent to which these policies will be influenced by the Report. For what it’s worth, I find myself in agreement with Ferdinand von Prondzynski on this issue. In October of last year, he wrote in the Irish Times:

As we’ve now waited a year longer than we had anticipated, why not wait a little longer again, and in the meantime add some additional (and relevant) expertise by bringing in international experts (which really should have been done in the first place) and conduct a much more thoughtful consultation process.

OK, it’s a nuisance to have to wait further, but right now I fear that the planned report will be ripped to shreds when it sees daylight. It would be better to do it properly. All this is said with no disrespect to the Hunt group, who have tried their best. But they were given the wrong brief and were inadequately equipped. It’s not their fault. And it can still be put right.

And he has made the same point repeatedly on his blog (eg: 1, 2, 3). The Hunt Report should certainly be the starting point for any third level strategy devised by the forthcoming government, but it should be no more than that. We have not yet located the Snark!