Friday, February 11, 2011

Election 2011: Reviewing the Party Higher Education Policies

This is the second long post in a series of three on Irish Higher Education Policy and the forthcoming election.

Ireland faces a General Election on February 25th. Higher Education policy isn't going to be a decisive issue in this election, but since it's our beat, I'm going to take a posting to briefly review the main parties policies on the topic and give my take on whether or not they make any kind of sense at all, in terms of helping Irish Higher Education meet it's future in some coherent way. Other bloggers will no doubt weigh in on the topic shortly ( Von Prondzynski has already begun his series on it) but the more the merrier. I'm going to work off whatever formal policy documents are on their website, rather than trying to slog through recent media stuff. If I have missed anything significant, do please let me know, and I'll happily amend.

Fine Gael:
Their position is likely to be government policy in two weeks, so their policies merit the closest scrutiny. They have a 32 page paper ("The Third Way") from March 2009, and a 20 pager on International Education, so they've at least thought about the issues in some depth.

They note upfront that "The challenges facing the third level sector include, but are not only about funding" which is a smart start, since so much of the thinking has been all about the money. That said, when you get into details, there isn't all that much daylight between them and the Hunt Report, except with regards to the money. They talk of moving the sector away from sole reliance on state support, which is funny, because when they got were in government last time they got rid of fees and created that reliance.

Their funding reform proposals centre on a graduate tax. The pros and cons of this have been talked over heavily online since Vince Cable floated it as an option in the UK last summer, so I'll not reprise them. It's not the worst model on the table, but I don't think it will work. Graduates already pay more tax on higher earnings, and if their earnings aren't higher, why should they pay for having been sold a pup. A Graduate tax will further encourage our best graduates to go overseas. I know we could, in theory, hit them for taxes while abroad, but it's quite impractical to do so in reality. Of course, depending on the details of the implementation, the functional differences between a graduate tax and the loan funded model can become merely semantic.

FG also mention philanthropy as a funding source. While noting that it's not a great time for philanthropy, they argue that tax barriers to it need to be sorted out, and that higher education institutions should be encouraged to make best use of philanthropic donations. That seems reasonable, and encouraging the development of endowments along the US model is a smart strategy, for the very long haul. Pity we don't have any land to grant as a basis for an endowment, as was done in the US. I wonder if we have any decent RF spectrum we could give them instead, or have we auctioned it all to cronies?

In a section on 'Meeting National Goals' the speak of the need to make sure new courses map to real employment and labour market opportunities - talk sure to raise squawks from the Arts Faculties of the Nation. They suggest that before any new course is launched, an industry and labour market survey should be carried out. Personally, I like this idea, but I know many academics feel that 'market research' is a dirty, commercial activity, and will cripple any idea that isn't very practical sounding.

Otherwise, there isn't much that is very different from the Hunt Report. As in Hunt, sectoral reforms are proposed to for tidying up the governing bureaucracies. FG propose sector governance fall to a new  Technology, Skills, Innovation and Higher Education Department, which sounds like a reasonable grouping, moving Higher Education out of the main Education department, where it is a poor relation. They did something similar in New Zealand when I lived there, forming the Tertiary Education Commission (I worked there on a short contract in it's early days). out of bits of the NZ Ministry of Education and a few other agencies. It seemed to work out ok.

As in Hunt, there is much talk of Accountability. FG talk about a fairly major Audit exercise, both on the financial side from the Comptroller and Auditor General, and on the quality side. It sounds pretty full on, but I take the view that if there is nothing to hide, there is nothing to fear. If nothing else a nice clean audit might silence the ongoing mutterings in the public domain about academics, workload and waste.

There is some other decent stuff there - they actually mention web based instruction, for a whole paragraph, as a means to increase contact hours. The propose an overarching umbrella University for all the Institutes of Technology, an idea I like better than assembling two or three 'Technological Universities'. I think an Irish National Institute of Technology could approach an internationally meaningful critical mass we are too shy of here. Equality of access and funding for part time students also gets a mention, as does improving Access for the disadvantaged, but that's motherhood and apple pie - who could disagree with it.

The document on international education is also thorough and competent. It merits a review of it's own, but we'll pass on it just now since it's a bit of a side issue, since all parties who have anything to say on it seem to align on "Copy New Zealand"

Overall, FG have turned out solid effort, showing good attention and consideration to the material, although lacking in imagination. A 2.1 Grade from me.

Likely to be the junior partner in Government, so their Higher Educational Policy should be important. Now, where is it? A search on 'University' in their policy set turns up one document (on biofuels). There's a dozen bullet points down on Page 14 of their innovation strategy, but it's all about international education. There's a Labour Youth Budget proposal document (Is that official party policy?). There's some stuff on Ruari Quinns Blog about Higher Education, where he ironically enough says the Hunt report 'lacks detail' and 'is vague'. 

Finally, I find a page in their main manifesto.

They say they are opposed to the formal reintroduction of fees, but the document is silent on how to resolve the sectors deepening financial problems [Update: They say it is impossible to abolish the student charge. So they are opposed to fees, but say it is impossible to get rid of them. Refreshingly honest of them]. There is a bit of talk about Audits, a word on centralising the administration of grants (sensible, FG says this too) and, strangely, no mention of Accountability, which is the policy buzzword of the year for higher education.

Interestingly, Labour have a whole policy piece on a scholarship plan for students from the BRIC countries - a sort proto Irish Rhodes Scholarship to help develop links with them. It's a nice idea, but they've written more on this one idea than everything else I can find on higher education put together.

Overall, this is a terrible effort from Ireland's third largest political party.


Fianna Fail 
FF policy will probably shift considerably over the next few years, as in opposition Michael Martin freshens up the lineup and positions. There's not much to go on in the main manifesto, in which the word University appears precisely zero times. There's promise of a Higher Education Labour Market Fund  - promising €20m to help the unemployed access higher education, and they say they are committed to funding 156,000 higher education places overall - no talk of how, or how well.
Based on lack of material, I'll have to assume that the Hunt report is their position moving forwards. I reviewed that in detail in the last post, and won't repeat myself. I gave it a 2.1 grade as competent but unimaginative. The funding model mooted is a loan based approach. By proxy that gives Fianna Fail a 2.1 Grade, although with the caveat that Hunt isn't formally their policy, and since they sat on it for six months before releasing it, it might not align well with their thinking. So, a 2.1, but resubmit an original work before election 2015.

The Green Party
Again, as with Labour, no higher education policy document. There's a general 50 step plan for education overall, which is up to step 24 ("Provision of health and nutrition classes for all parents of children starting primary school"). Down at step 13 they talk of fully implementing the McIver report on Further Education (from 2005, not available online). Funding wise they talk about a loan scheme to help full time students with living expenses, and when in government they made much of opposing the reintroduction of third level fees. So no clear ideas on how to fund the sector then, although their first point (of the planned 50) is to fund the education sector adequately, somehow. They also have the points on streamlining students supports and grants and making things easier for part time students, but there isn't anything notably different there to FG.

As with Labour, I'll have to fail it, for lack of substance.

Sinn Fein:
I'll quote their policy in full:
"Education and training to be an entitlement for all made possible by adequate grant-aid and support mechanisms,and the provision of focused access programmes for schools that currently have a low take up of third level places."

38 Words.

[Update and correction: Buried in the main manifesto another few dozen words, committing them to free education at all levels, as well as reform of the grants system. It's still too little to scrape a pass from me. I hear reports of an education policy being launched - I will update this post if it contains anything of note.]

So, I'll have to give it to Fine Gael for a competent, if unimaginativeness effort. FF well second place, but only on a technicality - must resubmit an original work. Greens, Labour and Sinn Fein: Fail. Overall, a deeply disappointing body of policy work from our political parties.

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