Posted on Monday 14 February 2011 by Ulster Business

uni graduates

Is Northern Ireland providing the best possible University facilities to meet the needs of learners, researchers, businesses, community services and public services, and establishing a reputation for world-class progressive knowledge development, asks John Simpson

If the local economy is to grow successfully, higher education and modern skills are essential ingredients. The consultation document purporting to give guidance on a strategy for Higher Education here, published by the Department of Employment and Learning (DEL), is fulsome in its multi-dimensional praise for the contribution of Queen's University, the University of Ulster, the two teaching training University Colleges and the Open University. Even though there are important questions and issues to debate, this does not detract from the deserved compliments. A brief review of the evidence in the consultative document tempts the question, if the current impact of these institutions is so credible, why was a special advisory group established? In brief, there are serious problems which need to be tackled. There is a hint of bias in the document which may be the consequence of asking Government officials to write a report that appears to assess how effectively they have developed the Universities to date. Indeed, the tone of the document is almost complacent in its conspicuously satisfied reporting. AGENDA INTERPRETATION UNHELPFUL The remit of the special advisory group was to oversee the development of a Higher Education Strategy. That remit should have led to proposals for a distinct framework. The Group has been caught between differing pressures and, as a result, can be argued to have confused its objectives. It offers for consultation a review, written mainly from a Departmental standpoint, which is insufficiently probing and stops short of well-argued recommendations drawing on the wider experience of the people involved. The defence for the Group is that they have developed the discussion on the role and work of Higher Education to the point where critical questions have been identified and consultation must leave scope to inform the next steps. That reasoning seems either too cautious or fallacious. The Review Group was high powered and representative. They brought a wealth of experience to the table. For that Group to write a report without, on most issues, offering a preferred answer, represents a failure to apply their expertise. Consultation where there is clarity on the issues and where preferred answers are identified would help to inform a better consultative process. The Group report effectively delays decision making. If experts are asked for their advice then well-informed recommendations should be expected. Key questions about the Universities in Northern Ireland should focus on whether they offer an appropriate range of learning subjects, whether there are enough or too many student places, whether there are gaps or unnecessary duplication, whether the course content adequately trains people professionally and personally, and whether the standards of primary degrees and post-graduate qualifications are internationally credible. These questions cannot easily be assessed comprehensively for a single University. Comprehensive assessment would be dangerous since, within an average result, some subjects or skills will be better or worse than others. There is a lot to acknowledge in the breadth and depth of University teaching and learning in Northern Ireland. Whilst that evidence gives some comfort, one comparator that is available (and quoted by the Group) is that the useful, if slightly qualitative, Times Higher Education Supplement league tables on leadership in research placed Queen's at 39th and Ulster at 45th out of 159 institutions. For comfort, this is only slightly reassuring, being in the upper third, but in a search for world-class reputation, a higher ranking would be desirable. UNIVERSITIES AND THE ECONOMY Higher education serves a much wider remit than strengthening the economy. The civic, social, cultural and international links form a key part of the rationale. However, an emphasis on their relevance to the economy is a critical yardstick. The contribution to the economy is easily recognised. What is more difficult is the assessment of whether the present size, scale and priorities within the University sector are optimal. Does Northern Ireland have enough University places and does the mix of undergraduate and postgraduate provision match the needs of students and the economy? The popular claim is that almost 50% of the age cohort of 18 year-olds attend higher education and that this participation rate is higher than in the rest of the UK. However, should this be questioned not as a success but as an excess? The review proceeds without serious debate on this. The conclusion on numbers, but not subject distribution, would be justified by the studies showing Northern Ireland's potential skills shortages in the period to 2020 as published by the Department for Employment and Learning. However, confidence in that conclusion is not helped by the evidence that the number of students who do not complete their course is significantly higher here than elsewhere in the UK. The conclusion is further vulnerable to caution when account is taken that 26% of students, as their preference, gain admission to Universities outside Northern Ireland. The proportionately large number of entrants to Universities along with the poor retention rate suggests that admissions policies should be re-examined and, even more importantly, that the type and scale of vocational education in Further Education should be increased. One of the questions not examined by the Review is why the contribution from Further Education is so unquestioned. The Review questions whether the current ceiling on Higher Education places should be removed: the maximum numbers cap. Unhappily it leaves an inconclusive answer. Every young person who demonstrates a capacity to benefit from higher education should be encouraged to take their opportunities. However, the selection processes may be too lax and Universities are maximising their admissions too unselectively. To give appropriate options to young people and avoid disrupted career preparation, as well as saving on costs, the University 'cap' does seem necessary. This conclusion will be opposed by the groups who wish to see the expansion of University provision in selected locations. The answer to their claims would lie in a decision to redistribute existing capacity. The Review Group avers from that question! HIGH LEVEL DECISION MAKING The Review Group is particularly vulnerable to criticism for a lack of clarity when it approaches the questions of who decides on the priorities in university learning provision and at which university. The plea is made to respect the autonomy of decision making within the universities whilst the logic of the constraints of Government policy and funding must be recognised. Ambitiously, the Group proposes for consideration: 'Striking a clear balance between HEI autonomy and the role of the Department (DEL) through a renewed funding and governance framework to ensure clarity in roles and responsibilities.' Then it concludes with a proposal for a new body to oversee the implementation of a Higher Education strategy to take forward the recommendations of the proposed strategy and ensure co-operation. The Universities can be expected to suggest that any new body is advisory rather than executive. DEL needs a stronger influence. The Review Group leaves this for debate. Back to square one.

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