Hunt fails to deliver on great expectations

Minister for Education Mary Coughlan and Dr Colin HuntPhotograph: David Sleator


LEFTFIELD: There are some valuable recommendations, but the National Strategy for Higher Education is sorely lacking in a coherent, accessible vision, writes FERDINAND VON PRONDZYNSKI 

IT SEEMS LIKE HALF a lifetime ago since Mary Hanafin, then minister for education and science, announced early in 2008 that she was thinking of setting up a strategic review of higher education. A year or so later, in February 2009, another minister for education, Batt O’Keeffe, established the strategy group chaired by Dr Colin Hunt, and gave them until Christmas of that year to report.

Two Christmases and another minister later, Mary Coughlan launched the final report last week, before confirming that it will take at least one more Minister to begin the implementation (or not) of many of its key findings. By the time this is over, there will have been more ministers involved in this process than the strategy group had members.

The body of the report runs to 122 pages, with another few added for appendices, and a rather curious page headed “implementation” that contains just two paragraphs reading more like a philosophical exhortation than a plan.

After an executive summary and some scene setting, the body of the report is split into two parts.

The first of these addresses what it calls the “mission” of higher education, by which it means the actual educational, research and outreach activities of universities and colleges.

The second part considers “governance, structure and funding”. It seems to me that the real focus of the report is on the second part. Ironically, the first part contains some findings and recommendations of real value, while the second part is disappointing.

For the past two or so years we had been told repeatedly by government that the Hunt report would provide a mission and direction for higher education, and so it was logical that one would look to it first to provide a clear strategic vision. As some early reviews of the report have already pointed out, this is where the problems start. The report does have a page headed The Vision for Higher Education in Ireland , but it is very hard to discern anything very original in it. It is really just saying that higher education will do lots of good things in an excellent manner; it is very much motherhood and apple pie, rather than inspired insights into pedagogy or scholarship, or even what society expects or needs in this changing world from an academic community.

Nevertheless, the “higher level objectives” that follow do reveal something of the group’s approach. Taken together, these present a picture of a higher education system that needs to be more “coherent” and “accountable” and work to national policy objectives. In other words, the strategy group focused on the governance and strategic coordination of the system rather than its intellectual value.

As might have been expected, much of the early public attention has been on what the Hunt group has said about funding and tuition fees. In summary, it confirms that significant additional resources will be needed to ensure sustainability for the sector at a time of a serious growth in capacity; and it recommends that student contributions will need to form part of the solution to this problem as the taxpayer cannot afford to pay the bill alone.

However, I don’t regard this as a significant part of the report, because, frankly, this will be a matter for the political system after the general election. Indeed, the group recognises that a separate process must take place to take the funding issue further. What Hunt says will serve to confirm what lots of others have said before, but it won’t of itself change anything.

So what is significant in the report? On the positive side, I think there are valuable recommendations in the chapter on teaching and learning. I would in particular support the idea that the student voice needs to be heard more in course planning and, critically, evaluation. I would also back the group in its views and recommendations on the first-year student experience, a period during which a student’s potential is greatest but the risk of drop-out is also higher.

I am far less persuaded by the group’s comments and recommendations on governance and structure. Yes, there are some recommendations that make sense, but overall the main thrust of this part of the report is that the universities and colleges need to be rationalised and controlled to a greater extent, aligning with a government- determined higher education focus applied to institutions by the HEA. The group affirms institutional autonomy, but then makes it clear that it understands autonomy to relate to freedom of managerial action rather than strategic decision-making.

In adopting this view, it is going against all the available evidence. Right now the German government, for example, is significantly increasing strategic autonomy for its universities, taking the view that the German underperformance in global rankings is connected with a lack of strategic autonomy for individual universities. I would not deny that the group’s concerns on the cohesion of the sector have some merit, but the solution to this is not a new layer of bureaucratisation.

So, what do I think of the Hunt report? Well, it does have valuable recommendations and some interesting insights. But if its role was to create a coherent and accessible vision that will drive both government and higher education institutions and allow Ireland to be recognised as a centre of academic and scholarly excellence, then I don’t believe it has fully met expectations.

There is more work to be done.

Ferdinand von Prondzynski is a former president of DCU.

The Irish Times – Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Leave a Reply