Why do we keep pretending that policy is rational?
Recently the Irish Higher Education Authority published a report entitled Completing the Landscape Process for Irish Higher Education. Of course, this is unremarkable in and of itself. After all, producing policy documents is the job of organisations such as the HEA.
No. What is of interest here is the image the report gives of planning as a rational and deliberative process.
The report is billed as an update on consultation within and with the sector as to the nature of the institutional landscape of higher education, of the sector’s response to an earlier policy report (Towards a future higher education landscape) that itself was an outcome of the strategic vision supplied by the National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030 (Hunt Report).
The suggestion is that the emerging higher education landscape will be the product of rational debate and evidence.
The architecture outlined in the report of programme and institutional rationalisation, mission clarification, and regional clusters has been part of the political discourse since an OECD review of Irish higher education in 2004. A significant aspect of all of these strategic interventions is that the PROBLEM of Irish higher education is that a) there are too many higher education institutions (and therefore it is inefficient), and b) the rationale of the system has been muddied by a process of mission drift.
But why is the institutional expansion of Irish higher education in and of itself a problem? The structural basis of this expansion was the establishment of Regional Technical Colleges whose purpose was to build regional economic capacity through improved local provision of technical and vocational training. The university system remained as the preserve of the middle classes, producing the economic and political elite. The RTCs later became Institutes of Technology. They maintained a regional economic focus but, as with the polytechnics in the UK, their leaders were attracted to the status accorded by being more like the universities, moving their institutions towards increased involvement in post-graduate education. This has always been a threat to the universities.
So, in an age where nearly all higher education systems are involved in processes of massification, where higher education, in all its varied shapes, is charged with the production of human capital in order to make national economies more productive and competitive, when does a country have TOO MANY higher education establishments? No criteria is ever brought forward for substantiating this judgement. So, many commentators are left with the feeling that the pressure comes from two sources: the universities, and the need to cut public expenditure.
And mission drift? Well, yes, there has certainly been mission drift, but the IoTs continue to be primarily focused on their regions and to be overwhelmingly vocational in focus.
So, is it all a manufactured problem?
I think it probably is.
The fact of the matter is that this is all financially and politically driven. Its about cutting costs (though money will not be saved). It is also about concentrating public money in Ireland’s top two universities in order to establish them as ‘global’ universities.
A rational process?
Yes, if the rational is securing an elite system of higher education and being a colony of global higher education.
NEXT: Ambition as the real driver of institutional merger and Technological University status.