Education, reform and an alexandrian solution

This is an expanded and updated version of an opinion piece published in the Irish Times, coauthored with Dr Charles Larkin

Recent commentary in the newspapers suggests that the Higher Education Authority are not happy with the concept of competition, suggesting that they will use their power of the purse to force universities to cease duplication of courses. In an Orwellian phrase they use the term “directed diversity”. This is entirely wrongheaded but coming from the micromanagers of the HEA its no surprise. These are after all the people that brought us the ECF Fiasco….And it will hobble the state and the sector.

The iron rule of comparative advantage states that countries should engage in activities wherein they have a relative advantage vis-à-vis others. Ireland is a small open economy with people as its primary resource. Understanding this, the development of an export-orientated service economy has been suggested by some as the most appropriate approach to medium-term economic growth. The key to this is a workforce highly skilled in what Robert Reich, former US secretary of Labour, has described as “symbolic-analysis” tools. The creation of this human capital requires a holistic, broad skill set. This is the product of a truly liberal thinking set that is the hallmark of a true knowledge worker. As services grow to become more and more important people will need a combination of soft and hard skills to gain and maintain employment

Hardly a week goes by without a government spokesperson discussing an aspect of the “Smart Economy”. In the public and perhaps government mind this is equated with technology, the “smart green nanobots” approach that thus far has produced lots by cost but little by way of jobs.

We suggest that a truly “Smart Economy” is not based on technology: the really smart economy is about flexibility, especially mental flexibility. Option theory tell us that, ll things being equal, the more uncertainty the more valuable the option. HArnessing the value of the option value of uncertainty, and the world is inherently and increasingly complex and uncertain, depends on ones ability to recognize the right time to act. Developing this mental flexibility should be the primary focus of the education sector, in particular the third level. Within this there is, we contend, no role for directed diversity or other such oxymoronic statements.

We suggest that there exists a set of interlinked issues that make the sector as it stands unable to do this.

Irish higher education suffers from a severe conflict of mission. It is expected to deliver on innovation, education, social enrichment, economic growth, public health, improved lifestyles and put a chicken in every pot. Though research suggests that all of these and more arise from higher education, the effect varies across individuals and disciplines. The context is further complicated by the regional imperative. Given the need to spread scarce funds widely there is little chance of obtaining internationally competitive scale in any one area or institution. Higher education and innovation is also drowning in an alphabet soup: HEA, HETAC, FETAC, SFI, IRCSET, IRCHSS, HRB, EI, FÁS, FORFAS, NCC, IDA… Although some consolidation in terms of qualification accreditation is now being proposed, this is only a start and will not address the civil service culture of bureaucratic empire building. Consideration should be given, we suggest, to the creation of a single ministry with three divisions – Education, Training & Employment and Innovation and Research, with a minister for state with responsibility for intellectual property. Ideally the ministers of state would, in future and assuming it exists, be appointed from the Seanad, allowing for external non-political experts to be chosen on the basis of observed international competency in these areas. In this way we can begin designing a holistic structure of education and innovation and make real progress on eliminating many of governance failures that currently exist as a result of higher education and research being spread across too many government departments and agencies. Higher education has many interlinked issues that need to be considered collectively not singularly. It would also enable the education sector as a whole to work together in solving known and complicated problems – such as the present crisis in mathematics education in Ireland (see Kevin Denny for a nuanced view of this issue, Carol Newman for a discussion of this in relation to services, and Brian McGrath for a discussion of this and the attendant problems in STEM (Science, Tech, Engineering, Math) areas in general along with a well thought out reform agenda)

The legend of Alexander the Great tells of his solution to thefamed Gordian  knot, a knot so constructed that it was impossible to unravel as when one part loosened the remainder tightened. Alexander took a direct approach and cut through the knot. We have in Ireland created a Gordian knot in the university space, wherein it seems impossible to solve the issues piecemeal. An Alexandrian solution therefore seems in order. In the Irish educational context we have precedent in Donagh O’Malley’s Alexandrian solution to the issue of secondary school access, which, springing full-blown from his mind like a modern Athena, met with a frosty reception from the keepers of the exchequer gates, but which bold stroke was a key foundation block for a modern economy and society. A similar solution is now needed we suggest for the university space. The financial crisis gives Minister Quinn scope, cover and a rationale.

What would such a solution entail? We suggest three main elements: freedom of academic institutions to set and deliver their own courses, ensuring quality in all aspects, and ensuring that the system is adequately funded for purpose. We argue that all three are required to be implemented simultaneously, cutting the knot.

Academic freedom is perhaps the simplest and yet most profound step. In essence this would involve the granting of “university” (i.e. degree granting) status to all third and fourth level institutions (inclusive of exceptional legal entities, for example, the research-orientated facilities, such as the Royal Irish Academy and the Dublin Institute for Advanced Studies). Each IOT, each NUI constituent college, each body such as the Tipperary Institute or any other body now offering courses at Diploma level or above would be freed. Care needs to be taken that we do not replicate the failures of the UK and Australia in similar reforms. Within the IOT sector new programmes go through a very rigorous evaluation. The issue is that existing programmes need root and branch reform to ensure that they are at the same quality and intellectual standard. With freedom comes responsibility, and the most important responsibility will be to offer educational programmes aligned with the fostering of flexible minds. Freedom of this sort would allow the universities to determine their own course, to play to their own research and teaching strength, to plan their own futures and to compete in the market for education based on these strengths.

Freedom should be extended to faculty wages. At present, within narrow bands, the best are paid the same as the worst, the most active the same as the least. Universities must, we argue, be able to set wages based both on the demand for faculty and on the excellence or otherwise of their job performance. Evidence from the USA indicates that salary freedom can assist in incentivizing staff, but this can arise at the cost of over-reliance on casual and adjunct lecturers at the undergraduate level. The cost of “superstar” researchers must not be borne by the undergraduate programme. The US Marines have as one motto “every man a rifle man”, and we need to ensure that in the newly freed institutions a motto of “every scholar a teacher, every teacher a scholar” is taken just as seriously. Morgan Kelly has, rightly, noted that Irish academic salaries (much like much of the public sector) are significantly in excess of European norms. However, the problem is that we suffer from a high mean – low variance issue (see Chapter 13 of the new edition of The Economy of Ireland) . The best professor gets paid the same as the worst, the most engaging teacher the same as the least, the professor in an area of enormous and external demand the same as the less. Freedom to set faculty wages within the labour laws is a sine qua non of competing in an international market such as the market for academic and knowledge workers.

The recent example of the Employment Control Framework (ECF), which has been largely changed but still exists, was an example of reducing the capabilities of the university sector. The original ECF was defined by its command-and-control approach to hiring, promoting and assigning existing and new faculty and staff members within HEA funded institutions. The higher education sector has the ability to obtain funds from outside the exchequer. The HEA, in its initial ECF proposal, by precluding institutions from expanding or maintaining staff numbers with these external funds, is a clear example of the lack of the necessary flexibility to ensure a sector capable of developing the human capital for the “smart economy”.

Freedom must also of course mean freedom to fail. If a university were unable to deliver on the required educational outcomes then it ultimately would be required to fold or to be subsumed by another more successful university. In this regard transition arrangements, in particular for the IOT sector in regards to upskilling research, would be essential. In addition IOTs and universities should design a general third level education contract to eliminate some of the institutional barriers between the IOT and university sectors with respect to labour mobility. Again, if there is a minimum agreed quality standard of research and teaching this frees up a vast pool of movement.

We suggested earlier that a truly smart economy involves the production of flexible thinkers. Such an education, we submit, must be more than purely discipline-focused at the third level. There is little point in producing graduates that are scientifically illiterate or unaware of human or social sciences. One can broadly consider three domains of intellectual activity in universities- humanities, letters and the social sciences (arts), life sciences and natural sciences. Mapping degrees to one of these we suggest that a true university education might involve an annual minimum of 15% engagement with each domain. The areas of employment that require specialist or technical knowledge might be better achieved by well rounded, more mature, graduates choosing postgraduate programmes in these areas. This approach would of absolute necessity have courses offered in multiple places that were similar. But that is no more than is required to train people to think rather than to try to anticipate in a dirigisme manner what the market will want on the graduation of these persons.

To adequately provide these postgraduate courses all academic staff in the university would be required to be active researchers, which would be achieved by a rolling tenure system. As Eoin O’Dell has written on many occasions, there are many complex issues attached to tenure. Ultimately, there is “tenure” as an academic concept and “tenure” as understood under employment law. The confusion of the two has resulted in much misinformation and angst. Employment law carries with it most of the protections that many academics see at “tenure”.

In order to make the system more transparent and better understood that people are required to work on research, we suggest a rolling tenure system. This would involve the granting of tenure for a prospective 5-7 year period, with biannual reviews. Tenure in and of itself is not a solution to ensuring either research adequacy or existence but can provide a framework within which some tweaking for discipline specific factors can take place. A recent court decision (Cahill V DCU) has highlighted the need for a legally binding definition of tenure, which should be taken as creating for the period granted immunity from dismissal by reason of pursuit of unpopular, unfashionable or dissenting research, and which is automatically renewed subject to measurable and externally verifiable outputs.

In Ireland the education system must be seen as a whole, not just at the Third Level sector. The recent PISA and TMISS data illustrates that there are fewer high achieving students in math and science. The number of students that fail the foundation level course in math, at 4,300, is far too high. This was in conjunction with exceptionally low numbers taking higher-level mathematics. (See here for more Irish results of PISA/TIMSS ) The Irish second level is suffering from a crisis that is not being addressed. The possibility of an effective Third Level cannot be realized without an effective second level. And of course, this depends on an effective, well resourced, primary level. While mathematics is clearly the sickest patient at the Second Level, Irish scores in reading and science have also deteriorated since the 2006 PISA exercise. This needs to be halted.

One possible method of fixing this problem is to improve the skill level of the people teaching courses in relation to learning outcomes. There are many many more dedicated teachers working their guts out than rumor would have us believe, but it is extraordinary that there is no premium placed on mathematical training for example. And there is increasing concern that “grade inflation” may arise from “teaching the test” rather than teaching critical skills

We suggest that those that are not renewed with tenure but are found to be competent and enthusiastic at teaching are brought into the upper second level teaching pool. This way the system as a whole does not waste human capital. At the same time it may possibly result in the higher education system’s demographics improving. And we could consider wider changes, such as replacing the Leaving Cert with something more akin to the International Baccalaureate Diploma.

Research activity and research quality are only loosely related but quality requires activity as a prerequisite. To ensurequality of teaching we suggest that again there be biannual reviews of teaching based on best modern practice. This would involve some element of student feedback but would also involve reflective portfolios and classroom observation. To oversee this quality issue we suggest a single evaluation unit within the above suggested ministry, which should be given a status in education akin to that of the Food Safety Authority or HIQUA and would be responsible for the practical evaluation of quality in teaching, not just that the quality assurance processes are put in place. Teaching is both an art and a science. The art element may be unique in its levels to each person but the science can be learned.

A third element relates to funding. In aggregate Irish universities are not markedly poorly funded. The issue is that they are poorly funded for the multiplicity of tasks required of them. The economic argument for public funding of universities is that they are providers of public goods –well educated citizens. The Irish rationale for full public funding was principally for narrow party political gains. There is no clear evidence that this free fee initiative has resulted in the ostensible aim – increasing participation by persons from lower socioeconomic groups – being met.

Separating undergraduate from postgraduate education we suggest allows greater clarity to emerge. Persons seeking to take masters or doctoral qualifications in an area do so for one of two reasons – a desire to seek entry to an area or profession (investment) or from a personal interest (consumption). There is no obvious reason why the government should fund the latter over other consumptions. In any case the operation of the tax/PRSI system should, in most circumstances, offer a return to society partly via the increased taxable earnings that the better qualified persons achieve, thus capturing the public good element of an increase in, for example, dentists, or telecommunication engineers, or doctors of literature. While there are problems with emigration, a simple (and in any case useful) change to the tax laws to make holding of an irish passport be accompanied by a requirement to file irish tax returns, similar to the USA situation, can mitigate this. Research can continue to be funded through internal allocation of surplus funds from running such courses, from philanthropic and competitive sources.

What then remains is the extent to which society wishes to fund the undergraduate space. We argue that with a restructuring such as we note above then some element of public funding is appropriate, given that it would result in a greater alignment with the needs of a modern economy and society. Universities do not just exist to serve the market but to serve a wider society. We also suggest however that some payment at the point of use, fees, be required. It is disingenuous to sneak these in under the guise of ‘registration fees’, hearking back to the way the state overcame the fiscal problem from the removal of import duty on cars by a registration fee. There are many models, but we appear to be moving in this aspect of the university sector to a Hobbesian world. Without an efficient credit system banks will not lend to people to invest in education. Without some form of government sanction or action people will neglect to prioritize payment of fees advanced. We seem in Ireland now to be moving towards a situation where universities will set fees but there will be neither a credit system to advance nor a state system to support this structure.

In principle fees can either be paid up-front at a discount, deferred and repaid via the tax system or paid via social transfer for students who qualify for a grant (or for all as we have it at present). As a starting point consider 50-50 burden sharing; universities should produce a full economic cost of their undergraduate provision, and then retrospectively be funded 50% of this en bloc by the state. This also recognizes that a well-educated population is a social and economic boon well worth investing in. It preserves their independence to maneuver and to set such fees as are deemed appropriate to make up the remaining economic cost. To ensure that cheaper courses do not overly subsidize expensive courses, no course could set fees that exceeded for example 175% of true economic costs. The consequence would be differential fees for courses within the same university and across the university sector. When combined with the freedom to offer such courses and directions as desired, and a CAO-like entry system, driven by prerequisites for specific courses as well as points and based on the courses and examinations of the IB, a system of student place allocation can take place which combines financial incentives and academic integrity.

The present debate is focused on fees being a replacement from exchequer funds. It is said the hard cases make bad laws but it holds true to economic policy as well. The present fiscal distress of Ireland necessitates a rethink of higher education funding but it must be sensitive to households and the higher education sector as a whole or else it will undermine both organizations. If the objective is to reduce the burden on the exchequer of the higher education sector it will also have to be done in conjunction with a reduction in the managerial burden imposed on the sector by the HEA and other quangos

Such a set of solutions is radical. It requires bravery in facing up to entrenched vested interests in politics and in the universities. It requires a willingness to be bluntly truthful with the public. Whether such can be achieved in the Irish political system is dubious but the role of leaders is to lead.