22 November, 2012 - Speech by Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairí Quinn TD, on Higher Education Reform

Introductory Remarks

Good morning – I want to thank you all for making time to be here and participating in this event.

This is the second time that I have addressed, in a comprehensive way, my own views of the future direction of higher level education in Ireland. 

We started last year in the Royal Irish Academy which has a fine tradition of promoting debate on public policy issues in Ireland. I am glad that its President, Luke Drury is able to chair this meeting as he did last year.

I would like to use this occasion to review the rapid pace of developments over the last year and to set out a clear direction on a number of key policy issues

But before I do so it would be useful to remind ourselves of background in which we operate.

International Context

If we are to survive in the current turbulent European and global environment we need to build on our strengths.  And our primary strength lies in our people. 

The quality of what economists call our human capital is a significant attraction for investors and entrepreneurs. 

Last year new foreign direct investment grew again by 30%.[1]

This year, Dublin ranked number one in the world in terms of human capital in the Economist Intelligence Unit benchmarking of city competitiveness.  

Maintaining this sort of headline position will be one of the significant challenges for Ireland in the coming decades. 

We are unique in Europe in that just over half of our population is under 35 years of age.  We lead Europe in the proportion of our population of 25-34 year olds with higher education qualifications and rank fourth in the OECD[2]

These favourable demographics if coupled with a high quality education system with a strong research base will give us every advantage in supplying the needs of our indigenous enterprise and attracting the biggest and best international companies into this country. 

But we have to redesign our higher education system to reconcile our need to increase capacity while maintaining quality within a sustainable and stable funding context. 

In that redesign I believe that we must preserve - even enhance the diversity of the system, and in particular the current strengths of our technology sector inherent in our binary system. 

The National Strategy for Higher Education (Hunt Report)

The need for a more co-ordinated, multi-faceted and coherent system was recognised in the National Strategy for Higher Education published last year. A lot has happened since then. Let me just list some of the developments.

The HEA published the criteria and process for designation for the Technological Universities.

It also published its review of the Structure of Initial Teacher Education Provision in Ireland which seeks to reduce the number of publicly funded providers from 19 to 6.

A Review of Creative and Performing Arts and Media in the Dublin Region is underway.

The HEA has published its Landscape document and I know that all of you have responded to that document and for that I thank you.

Last Friday, it published four input documents which it commissioned to assist in its own deliberations of a possible reconfiguration of the system which will be presented to me in the Spring. The HEA’s advice will be crucial in helping to determine Government decisions on the future direction of our higher education system.

I think it’s important, therefore, that as the Minister of the Government with responsibility for Higher Education I should spell out my priorities for the next stage of reform. 

Priorities for future System Design and Reform

My four clear priorities are:

1.     Strengthening our university system.

2.     The development and consolidation of the Institute of Technology sector.

3.     The formation of regional clusters between universities, stronger institutes of technology and future technological universities.

4.     Increased sustainability and capacity in the higher education system.

I would like to explore each of these further in turn:

Priority 1 – Strengthening our university system

Our seven universities each have their own histories and traditions. Because we as a people cherish knowledge and scholarship, they are deeply rooted in our concept of who we are as a nation.   We are justly proud of what they have achieved and how for a small country they have punched high above their weight.

There are 15,000 universities in the world and all seven are in the top 600 overall. It should also be pointed out that DIT features in the top tier as well. Our Institutions are seen as world leaders in some key areas of research.

 That’s no mean achievement and I know that the Governing Bodies and the staff of these institutions are committed to continuing to make this important contribution to the country.   I acknowledge and am grateful for it.

Given the difficult circumstances facing the country, I know that there are challenges in continuing to provide the level of service, particularly with numbers increasing. 

However, providing a quality university experience for students is not all about funding - it’s about the best utilisation of the academic staff and resources available, aiming high, being world class and playing a greater part in the globalised higher education market.

The process we are currently engaged in is designed to assist the universities to meet the challenges which will confront them in the future.

Priority 2 - Consolidation, strengthening and evolution of the IOT sector – why it is still so important

One of the most radical periods in modern Irish education was when Paddy Hillery was Minister, Seán O’Connor was Assistant Secretary and the OECD Investment in Education report was published in 1966.  That same year a steering committee was set up to plan for regional technical colleges.

The original thinking behind the development of the technological sector was visionary in its time.  It was based on what were then new levels of ambition for Ireland, its economy and its people.

More than ever, we need a technological sector that is agile and responsive to not only the skills needs-but also the research and development needs - of a rapidly changing enterprise sector,  and an increasingly diverse workforce. 

A core objective will, therefore, be to protect and enhance the role of the IOT sector in supporting enterprise, underpinning diversity and promoting access and participation.

Some institutes of technology are on a developmental path towards becoming Technological Universities. 

I endorse the criteria set out by the HEA for the establishment of a Technological University. 

It will be an arduous journey from existing institute of technology status to arrive at and meet those criteria. In some cases where institutes merge they may need to consolidate for some time in the new amalgamated entity before advancing further.

The final decision on applications for technological university status will be made on academic, not on political grounds and I intend to underpin this important approach with appropriate statutory provisions.  It is clear at this stage that some institutes are not seeking to amalgamate with others and become technological universities.

I want those institutes and those that do not become technological universities to concentrate on their core mission of developing close links with the local and regional business community and giving the best possible quality of education to their students, both from home and abroad.

Their flexible responses to date and the high quality of their courses have ensured for them a key part in our education system and I want that to continue.

Priority 3 – Achieving critical mass through Consolidation and Collaboration and the development of Regional Clusters

The context in which reform is happening is totally different to 10 years ago, let alone 50 years ago.  Communications in every shape and form have changed utterly.  Time and space have been altered by the availability of new technologies and our new physical transport infrastructure. 

There is need to achieve critical mass through consolidation and collaboration and the development of Regional Clusters.

But the level of system change and rationalisation required will not, frankly, be achieved on the basis of the submissions received to date from the institutions.

The Gap Analysis published by the HEA showed a mismatch between the sum of institutional aspirations and what is required.   It also identified the need for some very serious consideration of the management and governance arrangements which must be put in place to achieve successful regional clusters.

This mismatch is, perhaps, not surprising.  Institutions are autonomous organisations. They each have their own perspective and ambition that have been reflected in their submissions. 

Inevitably individual submissions are stronger on individual aspirations; and weaker in terms of collectively addressing some of the issues we need to confront.

The challenges facing our institutions in achieving greater coherence and collaboration were clearly identified in the report of the International Expert Panel appointed by the HEA. But in welcoming the Panel’s insights I disagree with some of its proposed solutions. I do not envisage forced mergers of any of the 7 universities – we have been there before and it simply does not work.

Nor would I envisage institutes of technology merging with existing universities or mirroring their provision on a smaller scale. We want collaboration and clusters yes, but not at the expense of losing the distinctive institute of technology mission.  

It is my view that institutional consolidation together with much stronger levels of inter-institutional collaboration will bring benefits to students, staff and the wider system.  

Consolidation and collaboration bring opportunity to pool expertise, concentrate resources, improve choice and enhance the quality of the student experience. 

There is clearly unnecessary duplication of course provision, both in the universities and in the institutes of technology and indeed between the two sectors.  There are areas of high cost disciplinary provision that can be strategically rationalised to improve both quality and sustainability. 

The Initial Teacher Education Review is a good example of how focussed consideration on key aspects of delivery in our system can bring those benefits. We need to look at further areas where strategic rationalisation can be considered, whether in the new cluster arrangements or through further reviews initiated by the HEA. Engineering and business are obvious examples that spring to mind.

 Priority 4 - to release capacity and increase sustainability of the system

I want to acknowledge the flexibility that higher education institutions have displayed in responding to the increases in student-staff ratios. The increases were, unfortunately, necessitated by the worsening economic conditions of the past few years.

I have set out my clear plans for the student services charge to increase to €3,000 by 2015 to relieve some of the pressure on exchequer funding.  It is clear that we have to proceed over the next few years within a very constrained funding environment. 

We are operating in a context where further productivity gains in every area of institutional activity, management and administration will also have to be made. 

The Government has a strong agenda to promote shared services, common procurement and the outsourcing of services where appropriate within the public sector. There are some very good examples of continuing innovation in this regard.

However, it is imperative that all higher education institutions are actively pursuing the realisation of savings as a matter of urgency.

There needs to be a sea-change in attitudes in terms of this agenda.  Crucial to advancement is greater transparency.

I refer to transparency of academic workload management and academic management generally.  We need more public information in this regard if good policy and planning are to succeed in achieving the outcomes we need.

In higher education this means that we must also collectively confront embedded or restrictive work practices.  We simply have to ensure that outdated rigidities are not allowed to impede the provision of the highest quality of service to those we serve. 

Maintaining the practices of the past as they relate to issues such as the duration of the academic year will not serve us well in the future.  We will have to manage and manage well in leaner times and this will demand greater productivity and innovation in how we deliver Higher Education.

The Government’s decision to invite the unions to discuss further Croke Park savings affords us an opportunity in this regard.

Good Governance for our Higher Education Sector

I want to turn now to an area which will be key to success in the future.   Effective system leadership is an essential prerequisite, encompassing as it does the roles of my Department, the HEA and the HEIs.

I know that ensuring the alignment of policy and the mobilisation of resources is a very live issue on which I understand good progress is being made in discussions.

For my part, I will introduce the necessary legislation to underpin the reform objectives I have outlined today.   This process will include taking a hard look at the need to strengthen the powers of the HEA to allow them to fulfil their enhanced system governance and regulatory role.

The government will also introduce legislation to reform the internal governance structures of higher education institutions. In doing so we will draw on the very useful submissions from the IUA, IOTI and the RIA.

The Government has already announced its intention to address a deficiency in the current university legislation. This is intended to ensure compliance with statutory requirements on remuneration and staffing numbers.

The intended measure is not about a ‘command and control’ approach by my Department as has been asserted. It will simply add to the options for an appropriate response by government.

It will be focussed and tightly drawn and relate to specific areas critical to public policy and will be drafted in the context of updated governance arrangements.

Greater clarity of the relationships, roles and responsibilities of the Department, the HEA and individual institutions is also needed and will be provided.

Implications for the Strategic Direction of HEIs

So what does all of this mean for you – the leaders of our higher education institutions?

The HEA Landscape process to date has been instrumental in giving us all a birds’ eye perspective on how the various drivers of change are converging on our system’s future.

It allows institutions to examine all of the other submissions; to take a critical look around their regions and begin to seriously consider how they may come together to provide collaborative opportunities for all students, national, international, undergraduate and postgraduate that realistically match future estimated demand.

I would now urge all institutions to take a long hard look at their future sustainability.

They should also look at their place in our Higher Education system, especially if their submissions have been predicated on wishful thinking.  Because the harsh reality is that as a country we can no longer afford to indulge plans that are not based on credible and realistic analysis of likely outcomes. 

The HEA will shortly re-enter a phase of engagement with all higher education institutions.  I appeal to institutional leaders to put narrow institutional considerations aside and approach this new phase with a greater national perspective.

I expect to have the HEA’s advice on a new configuration for higher education by early Spring. The Government will then take decisions so that each institution and the system as a whole knows where it is heading.

Launch of the National Forum for Teaching and Learning

And now last but by no means least – the student experience.

Many students in our system today are preparing for jobs that do not yet exist. When they join the workforce they will be using technologies that have not yet been invented. They will be attempting to solve problems that are as yet not even recognised as problems. 

This brings the teaching and learning agenda strongly to the fore.  Higher education is not just about preparing people for the workforce but also for active participation in society. The students of today will face a rapidly changing environment.

It is vital that higher education supports the development of Irish society in ensuring that graduates are motivated people that are adaptable and flexible.  We need a generation of innovative thinkers who will have many jobs and careers over their lifetime and who will contribute to Ireland's cultural and societal development.

That is why the National Forum for the enhancement of Teaching and Learning that I am pleased to launch today is of crucial significance in this modern era. 

It will allow the system to provide all students with a teaching and learning experience of the highest quality through engagement with innovative pedagogies and the technologies that support these. 

It will also provide a platform for progressing implementation of the key objectives outlined on teaching and learning in the National Strategy for Higher Education.

 I have every confidence that the Forum, ably chaired by Prof Sarah Moore of the University of Limerick will draw on the strong areas of existing expertise in our institutions. It will build on that expertise and disseminate best practice throughout the system, raising standards of teaching and learning overall.

The setting up of the Forum is particularly timely in the light of the expected changes in the initial years of undergraduate education. These changes will follow on from the work being done on the transition from second to third level. 

The universities and institutes of technology are engaging in depth on these issues in partnership with my department, the IUA, IOTI, SEC, and NCCA. I look forward to the outcome of this work early next year.

In conclusion let me summarise by saying we are talking about a wide range of reforms across higher education. These changes are of crucial importance to the citizens of this country.

Ultimately it will be the students and the wider society that will benefit from the reforms we are making. This time next year I want to be able to report progress on all fronts but I need your help in achieving that. Thank you.

[1] There was an overall increase of 17% in the number of investments from IDA client companies in 2011 and despite the current global economic situation and a strong increase in international competition, there was a record number of 148 new investments won during the year across all industry segments. Most encouragingly, there was an increase of 30% in the number of companies investing in Ireland for the first time (DJEI, Press Release 5/1/2012

[2]Education at a Glance, 2012, OECD