Ambition Drives Policy – Or When Policy is Morally Bankrupt

Recently I wrote about the pretence at rational planning that is the current state of Irish higher education reform.  The official policy discourse gives the impression that the flurry of activity that sees the presidents of Institutes of Technology meeting each other, the production of guidelines on criteria for Technological University status (that not quite a ‘real’ university status that IoTs may be granted) by Simon Marginson, and update reports by the Higher Education Authority are somehow the stuff of deliberative democracy.

My claim is that they are nothing of the sort. 

The reality is that as soon as the Hunt Report was published, with its well rehearsed arguments for institutional rationalisation (read budget cuts), Technological University status, and regional higher education clusters, ambitious presidents and registrars of IoTs quickly got into action.

Suddenly there were rumours of potential amalgamations between this IoT and another, of regional amalgamations.  Month by month it seemed these rumours changed, morphed.  What was a ‘definite’ love match one week was cast asunder the next.

It is important to note that all of this occurred in the absence of any real legislative framework.  Indeed, it still does.  It is an example of POLICY WITHOUT POLICY.  Instead, the process on the ground has been driven by ambition.  For all the attempt to put a rational gloss on things, the BIG players on the field call the shots their way.  For instance, the long held ambition for a ‘university of the South East’ (a dream thwarted by the OECD report) has framed the actions of at least one institution.  Others who may or may not come under the orbit of institutional merger in that region are bit players.  Hardly deliberative democracy.

Similarly, the changing elements of a possible regional fix in the North West has, it has been privately reported, been partly driven by a mixture of personal ambition and antipathy.

In a climate of fiscal restraint – OK, let me be blunt about this, in a climate of raiding the public sector purse to pay for the criminal mistakes of the private sector, the running around trying to either get in on a bigger players act, or desperately trying to secure some presence in the new future for non-university tertiary education, has involved massive transactional costs.  This is not just in the money (public money) spent on meetings, but the serious discontent amongst ordinary lecturers about their and their institution’s futures.  This sees itself in petty actions and in ill-health.  Ordinary lecturers are not participating in the discussions about their futures.  These are held by those higher up the institutional food chain.

This could have been different.  The HEA could have organised a more meaningful process.  The relevant government minister could have sought to legislate in a way that actually asked serious questions about what kind of higher education system a small open economy and country like Ireland could have.  But they didn’t.  I don’t know why.  Some might say it is the result of incompetence.  Some might say it was political ineptitude.  Some might say it was both.

What is clear, is that what is happening lacks any compassionIt is ethically moribund.  It is a moral embarrasment.


Why do we keep pretending that policy is rational?

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Recently the Irish Higher Education Authority published a report entitled Completing the Landscape Process for Irish Higher Education.  Of course, this is unremarkable in and of itself.  After all, producing policy documents is the job of organisations such as the HEA.

No.  What is of interest here is the image the report gives of planning as a rational and deliberative process.

The report is billed as an update on consultation within and with the sector as to the nature of the institutional landscape of higher education, of the sector’s response to an earlier policy report (Towards a future higher education landscape) that itself was an outcome of the strategic vision supplied by the National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030 (Hunt Report).

The suggestion is that the emerging higher education landscape will be the product of rational debate and evidence.


The architecture outlined in the report of programme and institutional rationalisation, mission clarification, and regional clusters has been part of the political discourse since an OECD review of Irish higher education in 2004.  A significant aspect of all of these strategic interventions is that the PROBLEM of Irish higher education is that a) there are too many higher education institutions (and therefore it is inefficient), and b) the rationale of the system has been muddied by a process of mission drift.

But why is the institutional expansion of Irish higher education in and of itself a problem?  The structural basis of this expansion was the establishment of Regional Technical Colleges whose purpose was to build regional economic capacity through improved local provision of technical and vocational training.  The university system remained as the preserve of the middle classes, producing the economic and political elite.  The RTCs later became Institutes of Technology. They maintained a regional economic focus but, as with the polytechnics in the UK, their leaders were attracted to the status accorded by being more like the universities, moving their institutions towards increased involvement in post-graduate education.  This has always been a threat to the universities.

So, in an age where nearly all higher education systems are involved in processes of massification, where higher education, in all its varied shapes, is charged with the production of human capital in order to make national economies more productive and competitive, when does a country have TOO MANY higher education establishments?  No criteria is ever brought forward for substantiating this judgement.  So, many commentators are left with the feeling that the pressure comes from two sources: the universities, and the need to cut public expenditure.

And mission drift?  Well, yes, there has certainly been mission drift, but the IoTs continue to be primarily focused on their regions and to be overwhelmingly vocational in focus.

So, is it all a manufactured problem?

I think it probably is.

The fact of the matter is that this is all financially and politically driven.  Its about cutting costs (though money will not be saved).  It is also about concentrating public money in Ireland’s top two universities in order to establish them as ‘global’ universities.

A rational process?

Yes, if the rational is securing an elite system of higher education and being a colony of global higher education.


NEXT: Ambition as the real driver of institutional merger and Technological University status.