The challenges facing Irish higher education: taking a long view

Mary Daly is a distinguished historian and the first female President of the Royal Irish Academy. It was a great pleasure to hear her Presidential Discourse, held in Academy House last night, on the topic of Higher Education and Irish Society: From Independence to today.

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The audience waits (I’m the grey-haired one in the bottom right)

Daly’s aim was to give a historical perspective on where we – the Irish higher education system – are today. I found it a fascinating account which helped me make sense of much that I have observed over the years; the RIA will certainly publish the talk, so I won’t reproduce it here, but it is worth singling out a few of the highlights.

Looked at over the past century, Daly identified two challenges that had long term roots. The first is a tendency for the sector to continue expanding without securing additional funding, a pattern that she traced back to the founding of the new state. There was little public provision for research funding until the 1990s, and the system’s role was primarily concerned with teaching. The modern research university in Ireland is, she said, a mere twenty years old. Socially, participation rates are deeply unequal; but she believed that any serious attempt to remedy deep-rooted inequalities would be at odds with the meritocratic principles of selection that have dominated hitherto.

Second, the sector lacks a strong and unified voice. Since the 1970s, Daly noted that much of the expansion had taken place in new HEIs rather than the established universities, and this institutional diversity has accentuated the levels of competition and further weakened the sector’s ability to articulate its place in Irish society, and make a case for investment. From a policy perspective, moreover, the funding model has been very effective in delivering growth for limited costs, so why change now?

As well as these two long term challenges, Daly identified an emerging and significant threat in contemporary attitudes towards science and expertise. Those working in higher education need to engage with the wider public and make the case for the relevance of their disciplines to people’s lives, while keeping sight of the importance of pure research.

Daly’s research hasn’t been centrally concerned with the history of education, but for me it was valuable and stimulating to hear someone speaking on this topic who has a strong grasp of the wider social and political history, and who has a well-developed capacity for analysing evidence of long term change. The RIA took its time in electing its first female President, and in this sense it was a privilege to hear history being made.

I only got to attend in my capacity as adjunct professor at Dublin City University, representing my colleague Maria Slowey who was on her way home from California. All in all, then, I had an enjoyable and very worthwhile evening while Maria sat in some god-forsaken airport.

Widening participation in the Four Nations

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The Higher Education Statistics Agency has just released its latest set of performance indicators for widening participation, covering 2014-15. They are far from perfect, but they do give us some idea of how university systems in the four nations compare with one another.

First, they tell us the proportion of young first degree entrants who come from state schools. These are as follows: Northern Ireland remains out in first place at 99.3%, Wales is second at 92.2%, then England at 89.6% and Scotland at 86.6%.

Then HESA provides the proportion coming from socio-economic classes 4, 5, 6 and 7. These are based on the Office for National Statistics’ classifications of parental status, calculated by their occupation, and classes 4-7 comprise technical and ‘routine’ occupations. Northern Ireland again tops the nations at 38.5%, followed by England at 33.4%, Wales 32.6%, and Scotland 27.2%.

These are overall figures, of course. HESA break the English results down by region, showing huge variations depending on where you live. As so often, London turns out to be a special case, with 38.1% of its young entrants coming from SECs 4-7, against only 28.4% of new students from the rest of South-east England.

Northern England’s students come overwhelmingly from state schools (94% in the case of the North-west), while the highest proportion from private schools are those from the South-east (84.3%).

So it looks as though Northern Ireland is far and away the most socially inclusive of the four nations, when judged on these figures for university entrants. This is probably best explained in terms of Northern Ireland’s history and its school structures, as well as the high cultural value that almost all parents place on education as a way of getting ahead.

Conversely, Scotland appears to do rather badly. I say “appears” deliberately, because the HESA figures do not include people who are taking short-cycle higher education in non-university institutions, and Scotland has a lot of young people who are doing exactly that.

So one conclusion might be that Scots don’t need to worry, as their wider higher education system is meeting the needs of disadvantaged young people by offering a wide range of Higher National courses, taught in colleges. Another conclusion, though, is that an HNC or HND does not carry the same currency as a university degree, and attending a college does not convey the same cultural and social capital. If this is so, then social mobility in Scotland is being constrained, and universities are being let off the hook.

 

 

Top of the League Tables: the Social Mobility Index

Bernard Baruch College, City University New York

Bernard Baruch College, City University New York

I sometimes think that what higher education really needs is a league table of higher education league tables. No, not really – but here is one league table that I would actually find useful: the Social Mobility Index sets out to identify which universities best serve the public interest. And the results are predictablly intriguing.

Basically, the Index measures performance against five criteria:

  1. the level of tuition fees, with the lowest fees being ranked highest;
  2. the socio-economic background of the students;
  3. the graduation rate, which effectively includes retention and success;
  4. the average early career salary of graduates;
  5. income from endowments, which like tuition fees are measured negatively, on the grounds that a university which does something without endowment income is likely to be more efficient than one which does the same but with high endowment income.

These seem pretty reasonable criteria, and they can be measured fairly robustly.The Index seems to me to combine effectiveness measures with indicators of equity and student success. You won’t be surprised that I am quite keen to persuade someone like Phil Baty and the Times Higher to undertake a similar exercise in the UK, where similar data are readily available.

Indeed, with a pinch a suitably powerful government body (such as the European Commission) could probably collect such information for the whole of Europe. I wonder which universities would do well, and which would do badly, in a European Social Mobility League Table?

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In the USA, which is what the current table covers, there is one clear winner. City University New York and its constituent colleges dominate the top position. What a great track record: best in the USA at taking disadvantaged students, ensuring they succeed, getting them valued in the labour market, and doing all this with low fees and low endowment. Yes, this is a league table I’d love to see replicated more widely.