IUA Statement on the launch of the HE Strategy Report

IUA Welcomes HE Strategy Report

The Irish Universities Association welcomes the publication of the report of the National Strategy Group on Higher Education. The report sets out a strategic framework for the development of Higher Education which establishes important parameters for how Higher Education in Ireland should evolve in light of the economic and demographic challenges and opportunities facing us. The fact that the report recognizes the fundamental strengths of our system, while also highlighting those challenges and opportunities, is important.

Against that backdrop, and among the issues addressed in this extensive report, we see the following as being especially significant.

Integrated view of higher education. The report firmly establishes that research, teaching and engagement with society and the economy are essential and interconnected facets of the mission of higher education. Within this holistic view, there is a particular role for the universities in generating new knowledge and disseminating that knowledge to students and society.

Importance of diversity. The report foresees a continued expansion of participation in higher education, but with that expansion having a changed character which places more emphasis on part time and adult learners, post graduate and international students. While it will pose challenges for the state, society and institutions in accommodating this demand, we believe that a continued widening of participation along these lines is a desirable goal. The universities have consistently shown themselves willing to respond flexibly to demand, even when exchequer resources are being reduced. In addition, we have put new structures in place to give effect to the report’s recommendations on internationalization.

Greater emphasis on the student experience. The report deals extensively with the student experience and related issues of learning and teaching. It reflects developments already underway in the universities in the modernization of the curriculum, both in its structure and content, new approaches to pedagogy and the use of student feedback. We endorse the reports’ view that these approaches need to be deepened and applied more consistently across all of higher education. We also welcome the reports’ contribution to the debate about the balance between specialization and a broader approach to education, especially in the context of First Year. The themes explored in the report have significance for the education system as a whole, and emphasize the need to reappraise our approach to Second Level, in particular.

Contribution of Research. The report recognizes that, in addition to its providing a foundation for teaching, research and its exploitation, has a specific place in economic development. The continued prioritization of research and commercialization in the National Recovery Plan is consistent with this and the research prioritization exercise recommended in the report is now underway. In addition, the universities have been proactive in the advancement of the Innovation Taskforce’s report in areas such as the protection and commercialization of intellectual property.

Benefits of autonomous, accountable institutions. The report underscores the benefits which accrue from a system of autonomous, but accountable, institutions. It makes valuable recommendations as to how both dimensions can be strengthened. For example, in human resources it recommends that institutions should have greater flexibility in setting terms and conditions while also recommending new approaches to staff contracts and workload management. In the implementation process it essential that the balance which the report strikes in ensuring accountability while continuing to incentivize innovation and flexibility is maintained. The tools and methodologies applied should be guided by best practice internationally.

New approaches to system configuration. While our system has a solid core, we agree with the report’s conclusion that there is excessive fragmentation in parts of our system and that this should be addressed. Among the universities there is already an extensive network of collaboration which has been supported and deepened by initiatives such as PRTLI, the SFI CSETS and the Strategic Innovation Fund. There are also growing numbers of strategic alliances, both between universities, and with smaller and more specialized higher education providers. The recommendations which the report makes in this area, including the deepening of collaboration within the context of regional clusters, are to be welcomed and will be engaged with proactively by the universities. However, it is important to underscore the fact that the report recognizes that these approaches should not be pursued at the expense of maintaining diversity within our system. This structural diversity is all the more important, given the growing heterogeneity of the learner body. In addition, while the regional dimension is important, it is vital that this is not at the expense of the broader national agenda and the international competitiveness of our higher education system.

A reappraisal of how higher education is resourced. Given the significant ambitions which the report holds for higher education, it is vital that a resourcing framework be put in place which is commensurate with them. The report proposes new approaches both to how the system is resourced and how those resources are distributed. As regards raising revenue, clearly the student contribution announced in Budget 2011 is a new development which reflects the specific circumstances facing the nation. Such a contribution is necessary to maintain a minimum level of financial sustainability within the system. However, it is appropriate that the report should set out a longer term strategy and we continue to endorse the proposal to develop a system of income contingent loans. Planning for the introduction of such as system should not be in any way delayed by immediate fiscal concerns.

As regards how funding is distributed, we welcome the proposals to bring greater transparency and consistency to the allocation of funding across our higher education institutions overall, building on the system already operated by the HEA in respect of the universities. We also welcome the acknowledgement that a balance needs to be stuck between the available resources and the scale of the system overall and that, consequently, pursuing growth at the expense of quality is inappropriate and will not be tolerated.

Further work will be required to cost the various proposals in the report. In the implementation process, there should be a specific priority to reduce red tape and avoid over-regulation, guided by an emphasis on measuring outputs and outcomes rather than inputs.

Conclusion – Importance of stakeholder engagement in implementation. The greater part of the modernization and improvement which has taken place within our higher education system (and which the report endorses) has happened without the need for government intervention. This is as it should be. In the case of the universities it is the logical evolution of a network of institutions which are responsive to their customers and globally connected to their peers. However, the Strategy Report brings a much needed conceptual and strategic perspective to the development of our system overall. As the report acknowledges, implementation can only happen through engagement and we look forward to working with government to deliver this.

For more information contact:
Lia O’Sullivan, Communications Manager, Irish Universities Association, Lia.osullivan@iua.ie
01 6764948 085 7141414