Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Thoughts on The Hunt Report: The National Strategy for Higher Education

This is the first of three planned posts concerned with the specifics of Irish Higher Education Policy. Due apologies to my overseas reader.

'Doing nothing is not an option' says the preface of the report. You got that right, at least.

The recently released and widely discussed National Strategy for Higher Education, known in Ireland as the Hunt report, addresses the future of Irish Higher Education for the period to 2030, which places it top dead centre in scope for this blog. Because of a busy January, I believe I'm the last blogger or columnist in the country to read and comment on it, so here I go.

Overall, there is some sensible stuff in there, but the report misses a couple of very fundamental things, largely through excessively conventional thinking. You can't plan to 2030 with conventional thinking. I'd give it a 2.1 grade overall, but barely. If we could deliver everything in this report, we would be a long way down the track, but it should have been much better.

The report cites 5 high level objectives (Page 29) which are alright as far as they go. Ensuring equity of access is one key issue which isn't emphased enough at this level, but overall, the high level objectives are, as is usual with such documents, the subset of things no one could really disagree with. The recommendations are somewhat meatier, and are summarised, section by section on page 17 of the report pdf. I'll spin through them section by section.

Teaching and Learning
Eight solid sensible recommendations here, nothing objectionable, all motherhood and apple pie. There's an emphasis on putting teaching and learning at a parity of esteem with research (Recommendation 3) which is long overdue, and down in Recommendation 8 an aspiration that teaching staff should actually be qualified and able to teach. Sensible things are said about getting the quality assurance systems up to speed, ensuring the system is flexible and open to accommodate part timers, people switching around, crediting prior learning. There is a very strong recognition of the need to open up higher education into an ongoing, lifelong process, fitting around peoples work and lives, rather than as a finite and bounded undergraduate experience. I've written about that before. The report is strong on this, and it needed to be. This section seems to implicitly recognising the need to atomise the system and rebuild around a smaller quantum of learning, which I'm all in favour of. Unfortunately, it's implicit, and perhaps I'm reading too much into that.

What's missing? While they say the system needs to be characterised by flexibility and innovation,but there's no specificity. There's nothing explicit here at recommendations level about open access or open educational resources. Indeed down on page 52, the report cites that 'large group teaching will remain the bedrock of instruction in higher education'. Lecture halls in 2030? Really?While it goes on to concede that podcasting and online discussion will supplement that (to 2030? Could we be a bit more ambitious here?) the focus in the language and thinking is fairly instructor centric, not learner centric.

Four major recommendations here, all seem very sensible, but the most important, and perhaps least probable in the current economy, is actually funding up research to 3% of GDP. I also like the recommendation about improving between the public sector, private sector and Universities. Certainly our Academics would, I believe, significantly benefit from some off campus work experience.

Engagement with Wider Society.
The reports recommends this should occur. Engagement with wider society isn't really something Universities in Ireland do a whole lot of. Society sends a steady flow of first years and money and that's pretty much all the engagement there is. There is the occasional 'Town and Gown' bunfight, which are generally seen as an opportunity to panhandle graduates and grandees.

While the overall idea of increasing higher education's engagement with the wider society is fine and good, this is a bit of a 2.2 grade section. The underling text is very soft on tangibles. One obvious pathway to engagement, via open educational resources on a large scale, is missed out completely. The report reads like they haven't heard of it, which is alarming to me.

Internationalising Higher Education
Again, a very soft section. Basically, the report notes it is happening in a big way, and Irish institutions need to get with the programme. The thrust of the report is of this as an opportunity for Irish Universities to attract overseas students, collaborate and so on. As ever here, it misses the big point. International Universities will, to 2030, increasingly attract the cream of the crop from Ireland, and international players will enter the irish market directly. This is a clear and present danger to the existing institutions in Ireland. There is a real danger of them being sidelined as bigger, global players take the smart and monied students out of the Irish system. Scraping a pass on this section, I'm afraid, for failing to warn us of danger.

System Governance
Again, to my eyes, nothing to see here. It's all fairly straightforward and sensible administrative changes. Some commentators have argued that the tighter management of Universities proposed here is inappropriate. That may be so, but so long as they are solely funded by the state, Universities have no real freedom anyway. Freedom is economic, or illusory. So long as the state is the sole funder, close management is reasonable. The smart thing, would be not to have the state as the sole funder.

Developing a coherant Framework for higher education in Ireland
This is one of the sections that people got slightly excited about. It makes a strong push for amalgamation and consolidation in the sector, especially among the Institutes of Technology. Ireland has too many small tertiary institutions. While I don't think scale is everything (not many students at CalTech or Insead) individual disciplines do need to have a critical mass of staff and students to use equipment effectively, to support enough staff to maintain full expertise and so on. Irish Higher education has in recent years had a centrifugal tendency, where every key marginal constituency felt that it's own University was warranted. This report, and the burst of interest it has triggered in mergers in the sector is for the good. Also good is the commitment to create no new Universities (although the 'Technical Universities' term is ambiguous). The magic title ' University' has too long been a fetish. Remember some of the finest Tertiary institution's in the world are not formal Universities: America's Institutes of Technology and France's Grand Ecoles are the crown jewels of their countries higher education sectors. It is no shame to be an Institute of Technology. I've written on this in more depth last week (On Scale) so I'll not repeat myself further.

Sustainable and equitable funding model
The first recommendation (number 22) talks about reviewing current academic contracts and says 'accountability' a lot. It's contributed much to a local brouhaha about academic freedom and tenure. I'm inclined to come down in favour of accountability and clarity. If academics don't present themselves well to the taxpayers who support them, they can expect this kind of prodding and poking. Those with nothing to hide, have nothing to fear?

Recommendation 24 is perhaps the most important. It proposes a shift to the student loan driven model, as has become the standard in the english speaking world. This is unsurprising, and probably necessary, although it presents well known problems, all of which we will have to rediscover here. With increasing numbers and costs, deferring the costs to future taxpayers and earners if the obvious, if lazy choice.I've commented previously on the UK's Browne Report funding model, and I shan't repeat myself, since we'll wind up with something similar.

Overall, this section faces the reality that you can't simply expect to increase enrollments and improve quality in the same system without lots more money, but it misses completely the idea that the solution isn't necessarily finding more money elsewhere, instead of changing the paradigm. Again, I'll give it a 2.1. It's workmanlike, unimaginative stuff.

Of course, with reports like this, the answer you get depends on who you ask. With that in mind, the composition of the panel is interesting. I don't know any of them in detail, there's a heavy weighting towards Higher Education industry insiders - current university presidents and so forth. These guys will have a strong background and investment in the conventional higher education industry. It's would be a bit like the Pentagon asking McDonnell Douglas and Boing to sit on a think tank about it's future aircraft needs: Big expensive ones. I think a 'self licking lollipop' is the technical term.

There were a couple of IT industry people on the panel too, and while I'm sure they're sharp as tacks, I can't imagine they had much time to think deeply on the issue. Generally, if you want a conventional answer, ask conventional people. The report would look very different if they had put a Stephen Downes,  Donald Clark or Steve Wheeler on the panel to present some fresh insight.

Overall, I feel the panel limited  the reports thinking. For example, there's a bounding assumptions that the skills we need can only be delivered via conventional higher education. For contrast, consider how much of Isreal's high tech entrepreneurs learned the soft skills critical for entrepreneurship in the IDF, and how many other great success stories of our time didn't get a Higher Education at all. Higher Education isn't the only show in town for shaping can do, innovative, entrepreneurial people. Unless you ask a panel of University Presidents, of course.

There are other annoyances. The report seems to take technology as a static non factor, something students are to be educated in, but not with. Learning technology revolution? No, apparently not this side of 2030, according to these guys. It's still your grandfather's University. Similarly, no talk of reorganising our crazy system of entry to Higher Education, although to be fair, it was probably (but incorrectly) set out of scope.

My final vote - it's a great effort, full of good strategy to see Ireland through the 1970's and 1980's and, once fully implemented it will leave the sector well placed to take advantage of the 21st century.

I know everyone wonders why they sat on the report for half a year - but actually, they didn't. Closer to 35 years, judging by the content. Good effort fellas. Better luck in the repeats, eh?

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