A rapid expansion of student numbers in recent decades alongside recognition by government of the importance of highly skilled citizenry and the need for research to drive a modern society and economy has meant that government has greater expectations of our higher education system.
In the 21st Century, the battle is for talent and government expects our universities to deliver. This has meant government is taking a greater interest in what universities do and how they carry out that work. Consequently, over the last few decades, this has meant the setting of targets and increased regulation in a space into which government historically rarely stepped.
The rapid pace of technological change will also place increased demands on our further and higher education institutions to be ready to constantly upskill and reskill all citizens. Lifelong learning will be the reality. Investment in research by public and private actors will dramatically increase if there is a desire to stay competitive.
In establishing the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science (quite a mouthful, I know!), the government recognised that we have to prepare for this dramatically changing societal and economic landscape. The Taoiseach was strongly committed personally to establishing this department and its role is to envision the future and ensure our systems are equipped to deal with and shape it. The department will be a failure if it is simply an administrative office for overseeing universities and training centres.
Our universities also need to be ready.
The role of the university president has changed from one where they were a first among equals in a community of academics to an outward facing chief executive of a complex, innovative organisation with a broad range of stakeholders and missions.
They need the support of a governing board that is strategic and is looking at the long term needs of the university, the country, even the planet.
The current model of Irish university governing bodies which have up to 40 members and where, at times, those members view themselves as representatives of the sectors from which they come rather than as part of collectively driving the university’s affairs, is no longer fit for purpose.
Yes, the concerns of stakeholders must be addressed at senior levels within the university and effective mechanisms to ensure that happens are essential for a properly functioning institution. But large, unwieldy boards are not the best model for driving the long-term strategy of the university.
It is important that university autonomy is protected; that institutions can engage in blue sky research and not just applied research as dictated by funding; that universities are places for safe debate and for challenging ideas.
At the same time, there has to be strong mechanisms to ensure accountability and where a university is not acting or delivering appropriately, there should be sanction. There should be a large element of self-regulation but where that fails, the State must provide for outside intervention.
While the Higher Education Authority oversees the allocation of funding to higher education institutions and works with them to deliver good practice in governance and other areas, there are few real sanctions that can be applied for underperformance or failures in governance. The HEA is like a sheriff without a gun.
It should be stressed that our institutions are generally performing extraordinarily well against metrics such as access, research, quality of graduates and this is against a background of dangerous levels of underfunding. Yet when issues of concern arise, those institutions must account for what has happened – particularly to ensure the maintenance of public trust.
Ireland is ideally placed to embrace technological opportunities as well as global challenges because of our rich talent base and our excellent further and higher education institutions. We need to ensure that the governance and support environment is in place to allow that system to grow strategically and with confidence.
Minister Simon Harris and the government have committed to bringing forward legislation in the near future to provide for these structures. This is the engine that will power our future develop and growth – we have to think strategically and be ambitious.
Fianna Fáil Senator Malcolm Byrne is the Seanad spokesman on further and higher education and was formerly head of communications with the Higher Education Authority.