29 April 2010

Croke Park Drama

Croke Park is becoming a central location in the national conversation about our public services, and now, about our higher education institutions. The Jones Road venue has certainly witnessed no shortage of high-octane emotions over the past century, and to continue the sporting metaphor, there is still much left to play for in terms of the reform agreement.

Tom Boland’s address at the Transforming Public Services conference this week offers some interesting insights into the possible future direction of tertiary education in this country. His remarks are reported extensively in today’s Irish Independent.

To some, his comments that mergers and amalgamations amongst third level colleges are imminent will seem like a statement of the patently obvious; particularly when compared with international circumstances. I happen to be in this camp.

One has to question the viability of 21 universities and IoTs (not to mention other HEIs, such as NCI, the colleges of education, etc.) for a population of 4.3 million. That equates to 200,000 people per institution. By comparison, in the UK there are approximately 470,000 people per institution.

An alternative perspective would hold that scale should not be a defining feature of how we evaluate our education system. And, certainly ‘largeness’ is an insufficient metric of quality. However, higher education should not be immune from the need for greater efficiency and obtaining critical mass has to be a consideration in how we fund resource-intensive programmes and research.

The challenge then for the higher education strategy group will be to balance the demands of genuinely accessible higher education and an education system that is sufficiently resourced and geared to deliver a world-class service.

20 April 2010

Challenges Facing EU Commissioner for Research

The April issue of Public Service Review: Science and Technology features some interesting reflections on the challenges facing the EU’s new Commissioner for Research and Innovation, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn.

From an Irish perspective, the former TD’s appointment to one of the most strategically important roles in Europe is significant. According to José Manuel Barroso, the Commissioner’s main priority is to take ‘a decisive step forward’ in building the European Research Area (ERA). Specific actions which will contribute to this include, he said, ‘strengthening intra-EU cooperation, pooling human and financial resources across the EU, and promoting the fifth freedom – the free movement of knowledge, ideas and researchers’.

In the article, some leading European academics and scientist give their take on the challenges that lie ahead, focusing in particular on policy issues to do with education, funding, gender equality, security and developing excellence in research. Some of their comments merit reproduction here:

‘[Another challenge is in] striking a good balance between industrial and frontier research and favouring key pillars of the European Research Area such as mobility, international cooperation, research infrastructures and the European Research Council.’
Luc van Dyck, secretary of the Initiative for Science in Europe

The steps Europe needs to take to position itself as best in the world for research:
‘Identify what the best conditions are for top fundamental research; in terms of research, goals and projects, Europe should not so much follow the example of other regions in the world, but set its own standards and goals; Europe should actively scout for [Europeans who work abroad] and find out what it takes to get them back.’
Anton Zeilenger, Austrian Academy of Science

‘Europe needs to actively involve 700,000 additional researchers, among them many women scientists. This is not only a matter of justice … but it is also one of scientific quality.’
Mineke Bosch, University of Groningen

The concerns raised by our European counterparts will resonate with many in this country. Ireland has lofty ambitions to become a Silicon Valley of Europe and is firmly positioning its national identity as a knowledge-based economy. Much more work and investment is required to deliver on these goals. While progress has been made, documents such as the forthcoming Strategic Review of Higher Education will tell much about Irish HEIs’ role in building a European Research Area.

A New Day for Education in the Midlands

Earlier today AIT signed a cooperation agreement with Co Offaly VEC, a development which represents a new chapter in the history of education in the Midlands. The agreement was witnessed by the Taoiseach, an indication of support for the initiative at the highest level.

Under the agreement both institutions will work together to develop FETAC Level 5 modules that will equip students to progress to third level. In a parallel move, a number of AIT’s part-time courses, as well as the first year of higher certificates will be delivered in Tullamore, Banagher, Kilcormack and Edenderry. Students will transfer to AIT to complete the second year of their course.

The modules and programmes to be delivered under the agreement will be in specialised high skill areas such as IT, science, healthcare, engineering and management. These are areas that have been highlighted by bodies such as Atlantic Corridor, the Midlands Gateway Chamber’s Skills Audit, and in various Expert Body reports as being of vital importance to the future success of our economy.

At the heart of the agreement is a recognition of the needs of learners in the Midlands and a desire to better serve our respective constituencies. It responds to our national ambition to be an innovation island, but more than that it supports a culture of lifelong learning.

The issue of support is a vital one in terms of our relationships with mature students and it is an aspect of the agreement that I am particularly proud of. The experience of the past few years has indicated the enormous contribution that mature students are making to our campuses. Their wisdom and real world-acquired skills have benefited the wider learner population. The cross-fertilisation of experience and youthful enthusiasm is producing higher quality graduates, graduates who will be better able to thrive and succeed in the world of employment.

Yet, we must do more to support, facilitate and encourage non-traditional students to consider educational opportunities. This is all the more urgent given the economic and social pressures that so many people now find themselves under. In this light, education not only offers hope; it re-energises and gives people the ability to regain control over their lives.

Alvin Toffler, the famous American writer and futurologist, has said that ‘the illiterate of the twenty-first century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.’ I believe that this cooperation agreement will be a means for people in Offaly and the Midlands to continue learning in new and imaginative ways. Here we have a creed as profound as the Three Rs; one suited to the needs of the current age.

The agreement is also significant in strengthening relationships between the Gateway towns of Athlone and Tullamore. Considerable progress has been made in developing the infrastructure, enterprise environment and quality of life proposition of the Midlands Gateway. The region is competing strongly for inward investment, as well as being an attractive location for indigenous industry. Central to its value proposition is an education and innovation support base that serves the needs of the local population and enables the area to compete on a national and international basis. Today’s agreement strengthens that offering.

14 April 2010

Deal or no deal?

Yesterday’s decision by the executive councils of Siptu and the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) to offer alternative recommendations to their members in relation to the public service agreement leaves its chances of survival a matter of some conjecture.

Last night, Siptu’s Jack O’Connor said that the proposals represent the very best that can be achieved through negotiation. Ultimately, however, it will be down to the union’s membership to decide whether to accept or reject the Croke Park deal.

Earlier in the day, the INMO became the seventh public sector union to come out against the proposals, leaving the reject-support count at 7-4. Amongst the seven against are a number of unions representing staff working in higher education, including the TUI, Impact and Unite.

Specific measures relating to the institutes of technology and universities are contained in the appendix to the sectoral agreements. The IoT-related points are as follows:
• The review of the academic employment contract currently underway is to be completed by 31 August.
• An extra hour per week is to be added to the academic staff schedules, which is to be available to facilitate all educational activities in the institutes.
• Flexible delivery of new courses aimed at the unemployed.
• Implementation of redeployment schemes for academic, administrative, technical and support staff, within and between institutes and the wider public service.

(Interestingly, while redeployment is mentioned for academic staff within the sectoral agreement, there is no mention of how it will work for TUI members in the appendix dedicated to redeployment arrangements.)

Exhortations to be flexible, at an institutional and personal level, permeate the document. This would appear to be a sound principle to invoke, since flexibility is one of the virtues deemed necessary to recover from the current economic malaise. Our businesses must be flexible to changing market needs and our people flexible in their skill sets and competences. The difficulty however with flexibility is that it is not a cost-free charge card; we cannot simply wish it into being.

Reaching agreement without stand-offs and without inflicting further pain on wider society is unlikely without a shared vision of what we are trying to achieve and how we are going to do it. Right now, that is the last thing that people need from their higher education institutions.