The Hunt report – A National Strategy for Higher Education – was published yesterday.  It covers a lot of ground with respect to teaching/learning, research, engagement, internationalisation, funding, governance and so on, and here I’m just going to focus on what it has to say about the relationships between institutions and possible rationalisations.  As with other HEA initiatives such as PRTLI and SIF, the report strongly advocates inter-institutional cooperation between “diverse, responsive and sustainable institutions”, “each of appropriate scale and capacity”, that increasingly have “distinct and well-defined roles, responsibilities and interrelationships”.  As such, institutions will on the one hand seek to develop core, niche competences, and on the other work with each other with respect to shared areas of interest in order to gain critical mass and pool “expertise, knowledge and resources”.

Interestingly, the method envisaged to facilitate such cooperation is a regional clusters model, wherein collaboration is fostered “between clusters of geographically proximate institutions, to ensure that individual, enterprise and societal needs are addressed in a planned, coherent and efficient way”.  Rather than paraphrase, I’ll quote from the report itself on the logic at play here, which – if this route is to be pursued – I think has merit as an approach.

“Clusters will be characterised by close coordination and cooperation between various types of independent higher education institutions. Together they will determine and meet the needs of a wide range of students, communities and enterprises in their region. This will require joint programme planning, collaborative research and outreach initiatives, agreements on mutual recognition and progression, and joint strategies for advancing regional economic and social development. The institutions will also engage with other statutory providers of education and training, such as FÁS and the VECs, to develop integrated regional learning strategies. The HEA should promote such regional clusters by providing incentives and by requiring institutions to build regional collaboration into their strategic plans.

The cluster model complements the National Spatial Strategy, and will benefit from the ongoing improvements in regional governance structures. These offer the potential to enhance engagement between higher education institutions and local authorities, local State agencies and other stakeholders, and to assist in developing shared solutions to local and regional needs.”

I think an alignment with the NSS, regional development and the concept of learning regions makes much sense as it places these kinds of arrangements within a larger strategic developmental framework rather than allowing the evolution of the higher education sector to unfold in an ad hoc manner.  And institutions have already recognised this and started to organize themselves into clusters that are regionally grounded – e.g., TCD/UCD alliance, Atlantic Gateways alliance between UCC, UL and NUIG, the strategic partnership between NUIM, DCU and RCSI, the Dublin Regional Higher Education Alliance (DRHEA).  Given this regionally focused approach, the report argues against a single federal national technological university as advocated by some IoTs.

Where such collaboration has not already happened or is piecemeal or slow to develop the report suggests the use of incentives to encourage “the development of regional clusters and institutional consolidation. This would result in a smaller number of institutions and a greater level of collaboration across the system.”  Interestingly, it’s here where we come across the idea of institutional consolidation and a shrinkage in the number of institutions.  It is argued that Ireland has too many higher education institutions, many that are too small in scale.  However, it is envisaged that any consolidation will happen either within the university sector or the Institutes of Technology sector, but not between universities and IoTs, although universities and IoTs will be encouraged to increasingly work with each other and share programmes.  The emphasis here really seems to be on the merging of IoTs to gain scale and critical mass.  The report also maps out a route for some IoTs to progress to becoming technological universities, which again involves criteria with respect to the contribution or effects on a regional clusters model.

Of course, whilst the report suggests a strategic framework for the creation of regional clusters of aligned HEIs, and some moves in this direction can be undertaken without significant funding, the major issue facing the sector is chronic underfunding and the loss of staff at a time when student numbers are increasing.  The government has consistently argued for a smart economy predicated on smart citizens and at a time when it should be increasing education spend, it has been cutting it from an already low base – the proportion of GDP spend on education is poor in comparison to other European countries (30th out of 33).  There’s not much that’s very smart about that policy.  Our future is our youth.  We need to invest in education, not just reorganise the chairs on the deck as the boat sinks lower.  Regional clusters seems like a sensible way forward if the strategy in the Hunt Report is to be pursued, the bottom line however remains the bottom line.

Rob Kitchin