THE just-released document by the Higher Education Authority entitled 'Completing the Landscape Process for Irish High Education' will most certainly give rise to a near infinite number of meetings across the country between the 39 higher education institutions (HEIs) over the next few weeks in preparation for the discussion meetings in February. The HEA will then report its recommendations to Minister Ruairi Quinn in March.
This is a very ambitious schedule and the chances of it getting unilateral agreement between all the HEIs in that timeframe cannot be great.
The document has the following sentence in bold typeface and underlined: "This does not represent, at this point, the considered conclusions of the HEA."
They are, it would seem, only polite suggestions, but they propose major changes in our higher education structures and procedures and must be taken seriously.
The document is not a formal report, but rather a discussion with a wide-ranging set of proposals involving both the seven universities and 14 institutes of technology, setting out collaboration structures with the other 18 HEIs, all 39 of which are currently funded from the Exchequer.
Accordingly, the fast-growing academic programmes of the private colleges are not considered. The seven universities are to remain separate.
The various colleges of education are merged with their nearest university and proposals for the merging of other colleges with a university are presented. These include the merging of the National College for Art and Design with UCD and the Shannon College with the NUIG.
However, major changes are proposed for the institutes of technology. Three applications for the creation of technical universities, which had been received by the HEA, are referred to in this paper. They are DIT, IT Tallaght, and IT Blanchardstown; CIT, LIT and IT Tralee and WIT and IT Carlow. A future planned application for a TU is referred to between GMIT, IT Sligo, and Letterkenny IT.
Five regional clusters based on existing relationships are proposed. These involve the seven universities collaborating with the ITs and the colleges of education in their respective sectors.
The two key drivers for all these changes are stated as improved educational quality and increased student capacity to meet the future demand for higher education. The key outcomes are listed as more opportunities for student access, improved student experience, greater impact on society and, finally, improved international recognition. Whilst no one would deny that these are laudable objectives, there is no explanation given as to how these changes will bring them about.
Universities the world over are fiercely resistant to mergers of any kind. Indeed, the reverse is more common in the international higher education world, where there are many examples of academic fiefdoms growing to the extent where they split off into free-standing independent colleges, often gaining university status with as few as 2,000 students.
The related issues of governance and autonomy will be hotly debated in these proposed changes. The document refers to the new forms of governance and accountability mechanisms which these changes will bring about, but its also says that they "must recognise the autonomy and distinctiveness of mission of each HEI in the cluster, while at the same time pooling their sovereignty, so as to be effective in meeting performance criteria agreed with the HEA".
That is again a noble aspiration, but it will be difficult to achieve. The document does not suggest any structure for the governance of the clusters.
What indeed is a cluster?
It is strange that in this document, no reference is made to the fastest growing area in international higher education, that is, online education. The future expansion of online education will have profound effects on the structures of higher education worldwide. All of the Irish HEIs have some online programmes, and in some areas, the ITs are leading the way. IT Sligo has 1,150 registered online students as far away as Australia.
These are very fast-moving times in the international world of higher education and it would seem prudent that we don't establish concrete academic structures that may be dated and difficult to dismantle in the not too distant future.
Professor John Kelly is president of Independent College Dublin and a former Registrar of UCD