Education targets - Academic autonomy is essential

The publication by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) of a blueprint for new strategic targets has the makings of a right rumpus between the Government and third-level institutions.

The proposals will likely be perceived as a threat to autonomy of third level colleges, because these could lead to the closure of smaller state- funded colleges, or their incorporation into large ones.

Henceforth funding for colleges should, according to the HEA, be based on performance in attaining new targets, such as having institutions improving student experience of teaching and learning, encouraging research performance in conjunction with both industry and the community, as well as providing more courses online and during the summer months.

Some in the academic community are complaining that the Government restrictions on recruitment in recent years are already interfering with academic freedom, but there must be clear standards and goals.

There ought to be the academic freedom to achieve standards properly set, but this should never be a licence for official indifference towards whether such standards are being achieved.

The HEA proposes to introduce standards of performance in a range of categories. These have yet to be decided and will not be fully in place until 2014.

They will likely be used as a measure on which funding allocations will be based.

Academic autonomy and the healthy competition that it generates among various colleges is a key strength of the Irish college system, as well as the successful systems in other countries. A spokesman for the HEA admits that there is a risk of a perception developing that the changes will endanger academic autonomy.

It is easy to understand how such a perception could develop, because the HEA is critical of the “crowded landscape” that has been allowed to develop as a result of the policy of widening regional access to courses like nursing and teacher training being made available at most colleges.

The HEA proposes to introduce a system that would probably result in less overlap between courses offered.

Colleges are being asked to submit responses within six months focusing on research and specialist areas in which they could concentrate, rather than offering courses in all disciplines.

This would result in fewer colleges offering the same degrees.

It sounds like another promise of centres of excellence. Irish people could hardly be blamed for becoming deeply sceptical about such promises from any government agency, whether it relates to education or health.

Despite being promised centres of excellence to tackle cancer, for instance, we are now being told that, within the next two decades, Ireland will have by far the greatest increase in the rate of cancer of all 27 EU countries.

In the circumstances it is incumbent on the HEA to ensure that its own performance-funding model is not allowed to undermine academic autonomy or healthy competition between colleges.

The system must be such that it promotes rigorous competition and rewards colleges that do well in relation to proper targets.

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