15 March 2018
by Ellen Hazelkorn

Irish higher education embraces the system

The Republic of Ireland’s embrace of differentiated national missions for institutions offers international lessons, says Professor Ellen Hazelkorn in Times Higher Education.

Last month, UK prime minister Theresa May announced a major review of the UK tertiary education system, with a focus on driving up access, quality, choice and value for money. The Irish experience is worth looking at in terms of how it is bringing about such change.

Since the publication of its National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030 in 2011, the Republic of Ireland has taken actions to move towards a coherent system of higher education. Policies have promoted collaboration between universities and institutes of technology – which are similar to what the UK used to call polytechnics – in order to deliver the complementary yet differentiated range of institutions and academic programmes needed by individuals, society and the labour market.

The strategy, however, required a radical new way of thinking. Emphasis was placed on the system as a whole: an especially bold move at a time when global rankings have focused undue attention on the performance of individual institutions. In truth, the move owed much to timing: when it was launched, Ireland was in the grip of an economic recession sparked by the global financial crisis of 2008, so any proposal to reward winners would have certainly bankrupted others.

Phase one commenced in 2012 with publication of the Higher Education Systems Performance Framework 2014-2016. This set out the national priorities and objectives, which included meeting human capital and skills needs, promoting access and opportunity for the disadvantaged, promoting excellence in teaching and learning, maintaining an open and excellent public research system and increasing accountability. These goals set the framework for the subsequent three rounds of “strategic dialogue” between institutions and regulator the Higher Education Authority, aimed at aligning institutional goals with the national objectives while respecting autonomy.

Then, the HEA published status reports on the performance of the system. Some noteworthy successes of the first phase included implementation of the Irish Survey of Student Engagement, a National Employer Survey and a National Forum for the Enhancement of Teaching and Learning in Higher Education.

Phase two kicked off in January. The Higher Education System Performance Framework 2018-2020 sets out six high-level objectives (compared with seven previously), including a smorgasbord of indicators from which “mandatory metrics will be agreed”. The main difference from phase one is the weight given to improving institutional “governance, leadership and operational excellence”. This arises in the wake of political controversy regarding the mishandling of budgetary and human resources matters by certain universities, and failure to deal with the issues transparently before the parliamentary Public Accounts Committee. The government had proposed granting additional inspection powers to the HEA, but ultimately took this route instead.

Last year also saw the publication of a new resource allocation model based on the recommendations of an independent expert group and a national consultation. This makes some important statements regarding allocation for skills development, lifelong learning, widening access and research innovation and impact. In addition, it suggests new metrics for monitoring university governance performance and, significantly, gender equality. The main research funding agencies have already announced that they will require grant applicants’ institutions to have attained the Athena SWAN award by 2019.

Funding levels were covered by the Investing in National Ambition report in 2016, but the absence of political agreement means that none of its recommendations for additional funding have yet been implemented. With student numbers having risen by 30 per cent since 2010 and funding decreased by almost as much, the debate over higher fees remains very much alive.

With the exception of funding, the new measures have been introduced without major controversy. Yes, there has been some grandstanding, but nothing major. This may be due to Ireland’s small size: most of the key players can all fit into one room. In addition, the economic collapse has perhaps instilled a sense of realism and collective endeavour.

Either way, Ireland offers a good example of how the social contract between higher education and society has been reframed for the 21st century.