Restructuring Irish Higher Education

Change is in the air for the school leaving examination with a proposal to amend the number of bands in which marks are to be awarded. These will reduce from 15 to 8. A large part of the reasoning appears to be the belief that in doing so, and in encouraging universities to offer more broad based courses, the pressure on students to achieve high points will abate.

In parallel, the ever excellent Greg Foley has written a series of blogposts recently on aspects of the higher education system. He has looked at the issues of outsourcing, of course duplication, and at the case for a rethinking of “everyone needs a degree”. There is as ever much to agree with in his posts, in particular his views on duplication
His main thrust in that post is that there exists massive duplication and we need to think long and hard, and start now, on consolidation. He doesn’t pretend to have solutions, but instead urges the debate.

Underlying this however is a presumption – that such duplication is inherently a bad thing. That at least is how I read his article. There is also a focus on the teaching aspect of same. Both can be challenged
The origins of duplication lie, as Greg notes, in the interaction of

  • a lack of a systemic overview (gee, no joined up thinking in an Irish context, now theres a novelty)
  • individual autonomy
  • the points system
  • funding pressure

His call for an overview is a welcome one. But we need to think not just of whether we need mechanical engineering taught in every dublin Higher Ed institution. It needs to be both across the sector (that is nation-wide) and across the learning space (that is to say from undergraduate to doctoral).

Education is a pyramid. At the base we have lots of people doing fairly basic things – thats the bachelors level. Then we have an intermediate layer of people specialising in areas – masters. At the top we have people gaining deep knowledge and the ability to generate same into the future – doctoral training. Focusing on the bottom alone makes little sense. Lets instead think top down. Lets create national graduate schools, preserving institutional autonomy and values while drawing on the best elements of each institution.  Lets think holistically for once.

At the base level duplication in the provision of courses is something that we should encourage, not stop. A university, and I have previously suggested that we should consider making a radical change and awarding all IoT’s the right to become universities, should have courses in humanities, arts, sciences etc. To have these is the hallmark of a university – universal knowledge available to all.  Greg wonders if we need 6 undergraduate courses in mechanical engineering in dublin.  The answer to that surely depends on what we want them to do. If we insist on having vocational specific denominated entry degrees at undergraduate level, and we want these to be widely geographically available, then yes, we probably do.  The thrust of government policy is however moving against these kinds of courses, in the main driven by the perception that they distort the points system. I agree with that thrust – let undergraduate degrees be the places where people get broad, transferable, skills as well as the basics of specialised knowledge.

Lets think of  a new system. At the top we would have a small number of National Graduate Schools (NGS). We could think of say a National Graduate School of Life Sciences, which undertook to manage graduate medical, nursing and dentistry degrees, one of Social and Management Sciences, which offered degrees in psychology, finance, organizational studies etc, one in Engineering and Design, one in Mathematical and Computational Studies…you get the picture. These would take over the management and organizational aspects of organizing doctoral and postdoctoral training. Courses would be offered by local and international faculty, the aim being to get the best people to deliver same.

Students who wished to enter into these would have to have graduated from approved masters degrees here or equivalent – this allows universities to alone or in collaboration design high quality masters degrees. Certification of the masters to be of appropriate standard should be under the aegis of an international and independent panel, which would also act as an oversight for the NGS. A student who takes a doctoral degree via a NGS would have that degree from whichever was the home institution of their doctoral committee chair which institution would also get any fees etc for that student. This provides the incentive for each institution to hire and retain quality research active staff.

At the bottom level, reconfigure degrees to make mandatory that students in one domain must take material form another. We really have three domains of knowledge : Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences, Engineering and Mathematical Sciences and Life Sciences. A student taking a BSc in Life Sciences should be required to take 1/3 of their degree from a combination of the other two domains, and so forth. That then allows, requires, for much flatter degrees – Instead of a BA in Actuarial Mathematics, a BA in Engineering and Mathematical studies, instead of a BSc in Environmental Science, one in Life Sciences . This in turn means much less pressure on points at the leaving cert as instead of competing to get into a course of 35 students are looking to get into one of  600. They then decide, as adults, how to shape their degrees.

This is a radical shift – but its entirely possible. It would shift vocational degrees, such as medical and engineering, entirely to a graduate level, which would in turn, I believe, mean people who were much more certain that they wished to be in that vocation. It would reduce heat of the points race, and allow the creation of heavyweight internationally competitive doctoral programmes. It may not be the way to go but in my view a wholescale top to bottom reevaluation and reorganization of higher education is the only way to go, not piecemeal changes.



11 thoughts on “Restructuring Irish Higher Education

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Restructuring Irish Higher Education

  2. Kevin Tuhey

    Brian ,
    A word of caution from across the sea.Britain has about 130 degree -giving institutions that cover everything from Trinity College Cambridge to London Metropolitan university and no ever believes that , say , a 2.1 from London Met would be anywhere near a same class as a 2.1 degree from Cambridge , even in identical or cognate subjects.Indeed in Cambridge Anglia Ruskin university is about 500 metres from Emmanuel College Cambridge….a mere stroll but in academic terms these two are in different galaxies , if not solar systems.
    1n 1992-3 UK Polys were given the title of “university” and the central CNAA standardising role of degrees was abolished…and fairly quick grade inflation was the result.
    Canny employers in Britain know the difference between degrees from the elite 24 strong Russell Group universities and the rest.
    But I suppose a common theme of all govt-funded HE in the western world is how do you deal with a excellent few departments located in quite mediocre universities??
    How Ireland deals with this , I suspect , will be crucial.

      1. Kevin Tuhey

        Brian , Again all noted…thanks.
        How about another semi-Brit idea then? I would say that in the Bell-curve of UK universities…the top are indeed international , if not world , class…but at the other end …the bottom 10-15 institutions designated as “universities” in the UK would really be stretching that term.Most are fairly minor teacher-training colleges that have even skipped the “Poly” stage and have gone onto greater heights of rebranding as fully-fledged universities.
        This I think in the UK context has proved to be a mistake-you have low entry grades, poor retention, weird subjects and end up paying near-identical tuition fees to the elite places.
        Britain has two models for Bachelor level education that Ireland might think about-the Open university and the London External/International degree programmes.
        All of these are delivered by blended /distance learning -London’s degree programmes for the overseas Empire go back to 1858 and the OU to 1969…from experience I know that the academic content of both these universities and their outcome degree standards are far better than the bottom 10-15 institutions in the UK.
        High quality distance/blended learning regimes for first degree studies from fewer academically “trusted ” places might deliver a consistent and economical building block in Irish HE?? With some sort of scrutiny body that sits apart and verifies degree standards??
        Then put your heavyweight research locations into focus at a level higher than taught Masters degrees?
        Could this work?

      2. Kevin Tuhey

        Brian , Yes-we have it over here to a certain extent-there is a degree(excuse pun) of prestige to having a university on your doorstep.In my part of the world in SW England…the university of Plymouth has a network of 17 FE/Technical colleges which can deliver up to the first two years of a three year degree-albeit in a limited range of subjects.So students can juggle p/t paid work , live at home and study…with often only the third and final year studied conventionally.
        I am sure Eire must have a similar model , somewhere.
        But I am sure that HE in Ireland and the UK has to somehow square the circle of “open access” at one end and ruthless intellectual selection at the other.
        I somehow imagine that you could not run TCD as a world class place on the “open access” model.

  3. Greg Foley

    Brian, Tks for the kind comments. I suppose my view on the duplication issue is very much like my view on many aspects of education – we need policy to be informed by data. I recall Frances Ruane making a plea in the IT about a year ago for an evidence-based approach to policy generally and given the spend on education, we need to take her views on board in the education sector. (A good example of not doing this is the introduction of Project Maths and bonus points at the same time – it’s impossible to know if the former has had any influence at all on maths uptake rates – terrible policy-making by a Minister obsessed with making an impact.)

    Anyway, my hunch is that unnecessary duplication does exist.Maybe I’m wrong and it’s all justifiable. But let’s find out what the real situation is by really drilling down into some sample disciplines – examine the content of the degrees, the staff profiles etc..I suspect we may find that by elimination of duplication we might not only reduce costs (eventually) but actually improve quality. But then there are the practicalities………

  4. iainmacl

    RE the national graduate schools suggestion. As you are probably aware that is very similar to the model developed in Scotland over ten years ago and in the one area with which I was familiar it proved to be a great strength allowing institutions to share specialist courses and for the group to act together in research assessment and funding bids. The Scottish Universities’ Physics Alliance ( was the precursor of similar alliances in other academic domains. The use high bandwidth videoconferencing, online resources and local tutors to share programmes is also something that I was involved with before moving here and it surprised me to see that similar approaches were not being used in this country at that stage.

    ps your categorisation of the broad areas of knowledge at u/g level probably need a bit of tweaking, but the general idea isn’t a million miles away from some of the original intent of the Melbourne model, I suppose.

  5. Pingback: Restructuring Irish Higher Education | Brian M. Lucey | Study Professionals

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