Is Ireland heading for an integrated tertiary education policy?

The Republic of Ireland is busy reforming the administration of third level education. Having brought training into the Department of Education and Skills, and bringing training and further education under a single strategic agency (SOLAS), it is now planning to merge the units dealing with third level education – further and higher education to use UK terminology – into one.

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National University of Ireland Galway

Inevitably, this provokes reflection on the potential for an integrated strategy for third level education, encompassing training, further education and higher education. This is certainly compatible with the aims of Ireland’s National Action Plan for Education, though it also goes beyond it.

Objective 3.4 of the Plan is to “Promote high quality learning experiences in Further Education and Training and Higher Education”. It also proposes to “work with further education and training and higher education providers to provide a broader range of flexible opportunities for learners and to support an increase in lifelong learning”.

Ireland’s further and higher education system is widely seen as rather successful by international standards, though it shares with the UK a general cultural preference for higher education over further education, and the high participation rate in the former (54% of 18-20 year olds in 2014) is marked by pronounced socio-economic inequalities. It  is a relatively small country (the Republic’s current population is around 4,640,000) and lines of communication are comparatively short.

A unified tertiary system therefore seems very achievable and, from the outside, it looks potentially desirable. It could help to remedy inequalities, particularly if it could overcome the reluctance of universities to accept credit transfer that has marred Scotland’s somewhat half-hearted attempts at a unified tertiary system. It could help reduce popular prejudices against further education, supporting upskilling while alleviating pressure on higher education places. And it could benefit strategically from the strengths of adult learning in Ireland while broadening the lifelong learning system.

Of course it is one thing to rearrange the civil servants and quite another to develop an effective, integrated policy for all post-school education and training. So I’ll be watching this particular space with interest.

Declaration of Interest: I am an adjunct professor at the Higher Education Research Centre, Dublin City University

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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.