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30 May, 2011 – Delivering the Strategy for Higher Education. Address by Minister for Education and Skills, Mr Ruairí Quinn, T.D., at the Royal Irish Academy

Good morning.

I would like to thank Professor Drury and the Royal Irish Academy for inviting me today to address and listen to such a distinguished audience on the future of Irish higher education.

This Academy, founded in the latter half of the eighteenth century, has witnessed massive social change over the course of its history.
Our higher education system has both influenced and confronted those changes.
And it has evolved beyond recognition in the face of them.
Flexibility and a willingness to respond to new expectations has been a hallmark of our system.
In what is now a watershed era for Ireland, those qualities are required more than ever before.
I want this morning to talk about the challenges ahead.
As a member of government of a country in effective receivership, I am all too aware of the scale of the task of restoring Ireland?s economic and social well being.
The reality of the public expenditure corrections that we face is harsh and unpalatable.
Hard choices cannot be avoided – even in areas like education and health.
In the education sector, these challenges have to be faced against a demographic background of continuing growth in demand.
Unlike our European neighbours whose populations are ageing, our birth rates are increasing and in recent years have reached levels not seen since the 19th century.
However, while that demand growth can be seen as a short term cost pressure, it is also our potential passport to recovery.
In fact, it presents Ireland with an extraordinary opportunity. As the motto of the great educationalist and philanthropist of the 19th century, Vere Foster, attested – “A nation?s greatness depends on the education of its people”.

 

The Context
Irish people innately understand the importance of education.
This is evidenced by the world leading rates of improvement in the educational profile of our people over recent generations.
We enjoy other important advantages.
Recent research carried out by ECOFIN, at the request of Ministers for Finance in EU countries, attests to the ability of our higher education system to maintain high levels of participation and quality through difficult circumstances.
In that study, we ranked first both in terms of graduates per 1,000 inhabitants and in terms of how international employers rate our graduates for employability.
Notwithstanding reservations about the crudeness of international rankings, it is also very significant that eight Irish institutions feature in the top 500 in global rankings out of more than 15,000 universities worldwide.
Per capita, Ireland has the 8th highest number of high-ranking institutions and we are ahead of the UK and the US (on a per capita basis) on this metric.
This legacy of achievement owes much to the strong commitment and ethos of public service of those working in and leading our higher education institutions – which I want to acknowledge here today.
This commitment will be tested further in the difficult years to come.
The new challenges ahead are intense and they are global.
Higher education will be the engine for the new ideas that will sustain and underpin enterprises of the future.
This is widely understood internationally.
The rate of education expansion and infrastructural development underway in the BRIC countries (Brazil, Russia, India & China) and in the Middle East now outstrips that of OECD countries.
Higher education serves as a shop window for the attainment and achievements of nations in the sciences, the arts and in business.
International investors and multi-national corporations pay attention to the quality of learning and, in particular, to the quality of graduates in higher education systems.
They also pay attention to international league tables.
One of the key features of the 21st century will be the universalisation of higher learning opportunities and it will be the quality of the various education and learning eco-systems that will ultimately determine the quality of national economic and civic life.
The challenge for Irish higher education therefore, in a climate of constrained resources, is to address these simultaneous demands for greater quantity and greater quality.
And in doing so, to develop and sustain a national skills base that is underpinned by adaptable and creative minds capable of taking a lead in global cultural and technological trends.

 

Adopting and Delivering on the National Strategy
This, therefore, is the context in which the National Strategy for Higher Education was developed.
However well the system has responded to the needs of the past, we cannot afford to stand still.
We need to future proof our capacity and capability to respond to fast changing demands and new circumstances over the next twenty years.
Building on our existing foundations, how do we position our higher education system to best meet new expectations of students and their parents, business and wider society in a fast changing Ireland and in a fast changing world.
The Strategy comes not before time.
It is not perfect but now that it is in place I am eager to work with the sector to develop and pursue its implementation.
For the Government and for me it provides a sufficient blueprint to commence action now.
We need to put flesh on the bones of the framework for change laid out in the report and take collective ownership for its implementation.
The Greek writer, Nikos Kazantzakis wrote that “Since we cannot change reality, let us change the eyes which see reality”.
We need to approach the way that we do things with fresh perspectives.
Higher education in its traditional role as a stronghold of independent thought, autonomy and uncorrupted inquiry, is ideally placed to identify and articulate innovative ways forward.
Much of what the strategy advocates is not new.
There are significant innovations and initiatives already in place in various parts of the system that provide important signposts for further progress.
We want best practice to become consistent practice.
And we want to reach for new levels of system responsiveness, of connectedness between higher education and wider society; new levels of performance and quality.
In short, our future ambitions for Ireland are entwined with our ambitions and capacity for enhancing the responsiveness and quality of our system of higher education.

 

Meeting Future Participation Demands
The first basic challenge will be in responding to the huge growth in demand over the next two decades – projected, probably conservatively, at 72%.
This will be mirrored by radical changes in the profile of learners and in the nature of their learning interaction.
Meeting this will require new ways of funding, designing and delivering higher education and learning opportunities, to support a growing emphasis on flexible opportunities, part-time provision, work-based learning and short intensive upskilling programmes.
The ‘knowledge economy’ needs people who can renew and refresh their skills and competencies over the course of their lives, people who are ‘job-shapers’ and not just job-seekers.
In this regard, the policy of parity of funding for flexible learning outlined in the strategy marks a hugely significant and indeed, transformative development.
I can confirm today that this will be implemented as an immediate priority.
Lifelong learning is now a core guiding principle of Irish higher education.
The current CAO system of entry to higher education also needs to be reviewed in this light.
The current system is designed around the dominant needs of a cohort of full-time, school leaver, entrants.
The CAO has served us very well and enjoys widespread public confidence and support as a trusted and objective mechanism for determining the educational and career directions of recent generations of students.
However we have to think in terms of how we manage for a more diverse cohort of students, with new levels and forms of demand for flexible learning and non-traditional routes of entry.
Systems of entry have been evolving.
For example, the bluebrick.ie portal for entry to flexible part-time programmes in the institute of technology sector has now been adopted as the application mechanism for the new Springboard initiative.
This has the potential to be expanded further.
Significant changes have been introduced for entry for medical education.
More widely, in addition to standard CAO entry we now have an ad-hoc mix of separate systems of entry for part-time programmes, for post-graduate and for PLC programmes.
There can be a lack of clarity and transparency around application processes and requirements for progressing from one part of the further and higher education system to another.
There is a lack of transparency, and probably inconsistency, around the recognition of prior qualifications and the recognition of prior experience for adult learners.
We need to consider how an increased complexity of entry routes into the future can be managed in a way that is sufficiently sophisticated while remaining transparent and fair.
Apart from the administrative dimensions of this, there is a fundamental question of how the current system is impacting on quality.
I have already recently voiced my concerns about the adverse impact of the ‘points’ system on the learning experience at second level, on the Leaving Certificate examination and on the readiness of new entrants into higher education.
The benefits of any senior cycle curriculum reform will be undermined if we do not address the demands and pressures that the current points system places on both teachers and students.
I have asked for a full and frank consideration of this issue within the higher education sector in the coming months.
We need to be prepared to think in terms of radically new approaches and alternatives to the current arrangements.

 

Quality
Protecting and improving quality has to be at the core of every aspect of our efforts.
I welcome the priority given in the strategy to the topic of improving the Quality of the Student Experience.
I particularly endorse the focus on providing a better first year experience with a stronger emphasis on general academic induction and preparation for future study and more opportunities to study across disciplines.
Combined with more opportunities for work placement and for service learning at undergraduate level and more consistent standards for curricula development, our students will be better able to make those difficult transitions from second to third level and onwards to their working lives.
The impact of this should be seen over time in improved retention rates and better equipped graduates.
The teaching environment in higher education should facilitate free discourse between student and teacher, stimulating the student to think critically; engage in higher order analysis; and learn to communicate and accommodate the views of others with tolerance.
It is important that our students find their voice, engage fully in their own learning and clearly articulate their needs and opinion.
An important element of this will be a full engagement of students with the development of feedback mechanisms at institutional and national level as they are implemented.
I see a structural role here for the USI and the Students Unions in each institution.
The recommendations in this area amount to a very significant set of proposals.
I am anxious to see them implemented in partnership with the higher education community – staff and students.

 

Return on research investment
Improving our investment and the return to our investment in research and knowledge transfer is now a major national development objective.  Ireland has made meteoric advances in its research capacity and is now ranked within the top 20 nations in the world across all research fields, and Irish research institutions now feature within the top 1% in the world in 18 key fields.
We need to build on this strength.
And we need to ensure that the right structures and incentives are in place for capturing the social and economic benefits of our research investments.

Our future research investment strategy will be grounded on maintaining a broad base of knowledge across all disciplines while at the same time selecting priority areas for concentrated strategic investment.
The current national research prioritisation exercise will be important in giving direction on this.
In sustaining that broad base of knowledge, I want to be clear about the expectation that all teaching staff will be research-informed or research-active and that all researchers will be active in teaching.

 

Engagement
Higher education draws its relevance and its importance from the strength of its connection to the needs of the society it serves.
The ‘engagement’ mission is rightfully given prominence as the third pillar of the higher education mission.
This is an area in which, I believe, the Irish higher education system can and should excel.
Higher Education institutions are reservoirs of ability and talent which can enrich and be enriched by greater interaction with business, industry and the community.
But those interactions don’t just happen of their own accord – at least not on the levels needed.
We need to think about creating the necessary structures, incentives and opportunities that can strengthen these interactions with enterprise and with communities – regionally and nationally.
And we need to support our higher education institutions in their engagement endeavours internationally – where they can be a window to deepening Ireland?s strategic relationships in a changing world economy.
I am interested in your ideas on how we can do this more effectively.

 

System Changes and Funding
If we are to deliver on our objectives for quality and responsiveness, there are certain system features that will need to be addressed as upfront implementation priorities.
Discussion of systems of governance and funding may appear to be overly mechanistic and technocratic.
However we cannot overestimate the power of poorly designed systems to adversely affect outcomes.
Frank Lloyd Wright, the famous American modern architect, upheld that to design the best buildings, “form and function should be one, joined in a spiritual union”, and I think that this is also true of a well designed higher education system.
We need to ensure that the form and structures of the architecture of the system are designed to enhance the true functions of institutions of higher learning rather than to inhibit.
I will be giving further consideration over the coming months to some of the legislative issues that arise around institutional and system governance and funding – including for example the composition of governing bodies and the Higher Education Authority.
Your views on the necessary directions will be very welcome.
Maintaining and enhancing standards of quality will require a closer focus on the sustainability of funding arrangements for the system.
We have to reconcile future demand for participation growth with limitations on public resources and a need to protect and enhance core quality.
We need to know more about how those three parameters of numbers, funding and quality inter-relate.
We will have to manage the tensions and trade-offs involved so that realistic and sustainable levels of growth in numbers can be supported and so that better informed choices can be made on policy options for future funding.
I have asked the Higher Education Authority to undertake further work on the sustainability of the existing funding framework over the course of this year.
We also need to ensure that we are extracting the full value and potential of all of the existing resources available to the sector – to ‘do better with less’.
An immediate review of capital utilisation in higher education is now getting underway at the request of Government.
And we must deliver on the reforms committed to under Croke Park, including contract reviews, as an important starting point.

 

A Diverse System
While the performance of individual institutions is of the utmost importance, as Minister, I am concerned with the performance of the higher education system as a system.
Fostering a coherent integrated system of world class higher education is a key priority which I intend to advance.
This can overcome problems of fragmentation and sub-scale operation and sub-critical mass, but it will also maintain and build on our identified strengths.
We have a range of mission diverse institutions that is enviable internationally.
That has been lost in many other national systems.
Many other national systems are simply too big to achieve coherence.
Our size is an advantage that makes it doable here.
For example, our entire higher education system is the same size as some of the larger American universities.
The strategy sets out a number of objectives for the system which can only be met by significant structural reform, by consolidation and concentration and by closer collaboration and clustering.
The primary objective is that our institutions cater for the broad spectrum of learners who will require higher education in the coming years.
Diversity is one of the major factors associated with the strong performance of higher education systems because a diversified system offers a number of benefits: it enhances choice, it offers a range of progression pathways, it best caters for the dynamic needs of modern labour markets.
It enhances quality through the concentration of expertise in specific institutions and it increases the capacity for innovation at a local level.
Our higher education institutions will have to play complementary roles through which they can meet a diverse range of needs.
Already, the system is moving to respond in a dynamic and organic way.
I welcome the readiness shown by the institutes of technology to actively engage in discussions leading to alliances and consolidation.
The driving force behind such discussions should be sustainability and excellence and institutes should take time and care to ensure that the choices they make are in the broader public interest as well as in the interests of the institution.
Ultimately the Government will have to take a view on each proposal but I encourage the institutes to continue their explorations in this “organic” way and they will be supported by my Department and the HEA.
I am aware that impetus for consolidation is provided by the desire of a number of institutes of technology for the status of technological university.
The institutes have, since their establishment, served the needs of Irish students, enterprise, society and the economy very well.
Clearly we want them to continue in that vein.
But I accept the view that the time has come for institutes to be given scope to develop further.
There are untapped capacities within them and I believe that the creation of a very small number of technological universities has the potential to release those.
But we must be vigilant and ensure that excellence continues to be the hallmark of our higher education institutions and of our system of higher education.
We cannot afford to be influenced by conventional prejudices, territorialism or institutional ambition for new status without new substance.  A technological university must first and foremost be a university in the quality of its programmes, teaching and research, albeit one with a quite different mission to our existing universities.
Work has already been advanced on the development of performance criteria for a re-designation process.
These criteria will be demanding and relevant to the technological sector mission.
I have now asked the HEA to engage in a focused consultation on the draft criteria and I look forward to their report in the coming weeks.
There are also welcome developments among the universities towards greater co-ordination and collaboration.
I expect to see these gather pace and impact in areas such as programme development and delivery, joint programmes and programme rationalisation, as well as in areas such as research and innovation.
This is not an overnight journey.
I would envisage an evolving future where Ireland is served by a small number of substantial technological universities: each with a strong regional innovation and skills focus: and each working closely with existing universities and other education providers as part of strong regional clusters and a diverse responsive system.
We need to recognise too the potential of an-island approach to developing that system strength.
I am very keen to hear the views from your first panel session this morning on how future system evolution can reinforce a form of diversity and mission differentiation that makes sense to Ireland’s needs.

 

Accountability and Autonomy
I want to also comment on the topic of your second panel discussion today.
The State invests about ?2 billion per annum in Irish higher education.
Our higher education institutions also enjoy widespread civic and public support that sustains their broader commercial and philanthropic activity.
We have a collective public duty to be able to demonstrate in a more transparent way what we are delivering for this investment and support.
Clearly there are particular accountability requirements in respect of Exchequer funded activity.
But, acting on behalf of wider society, the State also has an interest and responsibility for public accountability, on a perhaps less prescriptive level, in respect of wider non-publicly funded activity in the sector.
The national strategy proposes a new relationship between the State and higher education institutions which will respond to the main performance challenges ahead.
I have no hesitation in firmly endorsing the need for our institutions to enjoy strong levels of autonomy over their operations in order to deliver desired levels of innovation and responsiveness.
However, this needs to be balanced with the requirements of public accountability for performance.
The recommended process of strategic dialogue will be the principle mechanism for this, allied to a funding model that directly addresses institutional performance in specific key areas.
In achieving this, the role of the Higher Education Authority will be central.
How the strategic dialogue process is negotiated by all sides will be key to success.
On the one hand an overly directive approach by the HEA could damage the institutional autonomy that is so much a hallmark of the success to-date of our system, and of all successful systems internationally.
On the other hand we all know to our cost where the alternative – regulation with too light a touch – can lead.
I recognise that some of the recent specific control measures that have been introduced in the sector create concerns around future direction in managing that balance between autonomy and accountability.
However, these measures need to be seen as a necessary immediate feature of our current extraordinary circumstances and should not divert us from the challenge of striking the right longer term balance in defining an appropriate strategic relationship.
The new relationship that I envisage will be respectful and collaborative. It will be consultative and it will be fair.
It will recognise the autonomy of institutions.
It will be realistic and it will not make the mistake of pushing the scale of operations into unsustainable territory by ignoring realistic resourcing requirements.
It will recognise that much of what is truly excellent and unique in higher education institutions can sometimes be difficult to capture in numbers, and the need not to put important, perhaps fragile qualities at risk.
But at the same time – it will be and it must be challenging in a way that we have not seen before.
The envisaged performance framework will rely on robust data flows related to outcomes and agreed indicators that are relevant to institutional mission and direction.
An early review of data capacity within the system will provide an important underpinning.  The broader accountability requirements on institutions will need to extend to individual performance accountability.
The development of workload allocation models, and wider Croke Park reforms, will provide important building blocks.
The HEA will shortly engage with the sector on a consultation process on strategic dialogue.
It is my view that this process, and the fine balances required, can be worked out in a spirit of partnership and shared objectives.

 

Academic Freedom
Reflecting on my interactions to date with people across the higher education system, I am conscious of the general eagerness within the higher education community to contribute to economic renewal and to national recovery and a readiness to engage with the policy implementation challenges set by the National Strategy.
I am also aware of the reservoir of wisdom, commitment and talent among many academics serving and retired.
This is one reason why the concept of academic freedom is in everyone’s interest to defend.
Autonomous, accountable individual scholars working within a community of free inquiry are a critical lynchpin in the creation and dissemination of knowledge.
They are also central to the idea of a democratic republic.
Without their guidance we will have no similarly critically thinking students with the ability to direct their own learning, question received wisdom and perhaps surpass their teachers in time.
These are the kind of graduates that employers want.
These are also the kind of men and women that Irish society needs now more than ever if we are to grow and prosper with a new-found sense of pride and social justice.
In my view, the vital tenets of academic freedom – independence of expression and thought – are entirely compatible with modern requirements for collegiality and performance accountability.
It is worth reflecting on the words of Albert Einstein, an honorary member of this Academy:
“By academic freedom I understand the right to search for truth and to publish and teach what one holds to be true. This right implies also a duty; one must not conceal any part of what one has recognized to be true.”

 

Strategy implementation
In this spirit, I ask you all to engage fully in the discussion today and in the wider process of implementation of priorities for action emerging out of the strategy.
President Eisenhower once said “the plan is nothing….the planning and execution are everything”.
The strategy is developed.  Implementation is now my main focus.
An implementation group is already in place to oversee and co-ordinate the strong partnership effort that is now required across the academic community, higher education leadership and the various agencies and interests that interact with various parts of the system.
The implementation group, chaired by the Secretary General of my Department and involving the HEA and higher education leadership, has identified timelines and responsibilities for the various priority actions.
These will now be published on my Department’s website to give clarity in assisting the partnership effort required for delivery.
Delivery on the full range of actions cannot be achieved at the centre.
It will require engagement, ownership and commitment throughout the sector.
A roadmap is in place.
I need you to take this roadmap and use it in helping to shape the future direction of change.
I want today?s event to be the beginning of a process of dialogue and interaction, involving all of you in helping to make this happen.

Concluding remarks
We are once again at a crossroads.
We are called upon to effect a transformation in the skills and competence levels of our people in the interests of economic renewal and national development.
As the strategy asserts: “In the advancement of human knowledge and understanding, Ireland has its own distinctive contribution to make.”
As an island renowned for scholarship, scientific discovery, creative arts and innovation, Ireland has attracted and will continue to attract independent thinkers and entrepreneurs from around the globe.
Our national wellbeing depends on social innovation and cultural development as well as on technological advancement and economic competitiveness.
We look to higher education to lead on each of these fronts.
Rather than limiting our ambitions by what we know others have done let us set out to create a higher education system that responds to Irish needs and that sets the tone and pace of higher education reform internationally.
As the 20th century Russian writer Kornei Chukovsky wrote –
“The present belongs to the sober, the cautious, the routine-prone but the future belongs to those who do not rein in their imaginations”
Ends

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