Hunt Report Dialogue


RIA aide memoir for discussion of the Hunt Report
Prepared by: Claire O’Connell 31 May 2011

Can we rely on the Leaving Certificate to bring students from diverse backgrounds into higher education? Should institutions specialise in particular disciplines to achieve higher standards of research and teaching? And can we harness the lecturing talents of graduate and post-doctoral researchers to help boost employment and meet the increasing demand for higher-education services?

Those were among the questions raised at the RIA forum ‘A Dialogue on the Hunt Report ’, which took place on Monday, 30 May 2011; an event that saw Minister for Education and Skills RuairĂ­ Quinn, TD, deliver his first address on the current government’s vision for the higher-education sector.

The day-long meeting took its cues from the National Strategy in Higher Education in Ireland (the Hunt Report) launched earlier this year, and in his welcome, RIA President Professor Luke Drury invited the audience—a broad cross-section of people engaged in the higher-education sector—to take part in an ‘open, serious and academically rigorous dialogue’, where participants would speak in a personal capacity rather than as representatives of a particular institution.

Kicking off the conversation, Minister Quinn delivered a well-received address [the full text of which is available here ] that touched on many of the areas highlighted in the Hunt Report, and outlined the associated challenges, concerns and opportunities.

In this, his first major policy statement on higher education since taking office, the minister emphasised the scale of the task facing the higher-education sector in Ireland—the next two decades will see a conservatively estimated 72 per cent increase in participation here. Against this backdrop, he stated that Ireland needs to increase both the quantity and quality of education, and to meet the challenges of moving to more universal higher-education opportunities: we cannot afford to stand still.

The CAO system of entry needs review, according to the minister, who described how the current system is built around the needs of the school-leaver entering full-time higher education. The impact of the ‘points’ system also needs to be examined, he noted: ‘The benefits of any senior cycle curriculum reform will be undermined if we do not address the demands and pressures that the current points system places on both teachers and students’.

Minister Quinn also emphasised the need to enhance the quality of the student experience in higher education (with a particular focus on the first year), the importance of harnessing the fruits of research investment and the imperative forhigher-education institutions to engage more effectively with business, industryand the community.

The minister raised his own concerns over the performance of the higher-education system as a system, and he spoke of the need to examine systemgovernance and funding, to ensure that ‘our institutions cater for the broad spectrum of learners who will require higher education in the coming years’.

Minister Quinn spoke of taking collective ownership of the Hunt Report’simplementation, and, in a move welcomed by many, he threw the doors open to ideas and comments. ‘We want to be bombarded with creative ideas, not to be bombarding you with restrictive ideas’, he said in answer to a question from the floor.

Following the minister’s speech, a panel discussion on the system of higher education quickly identified the need to increase the diversity of students engaging in higher education Ireland. But how? It’s important to think about the mechanisms for encouraging and managing a greater diversity of learners, noted one panellist: ‘A poorly designed system will lead to poor outcomes’

The debate noted the lack of data available about the socioeconomic backgrounds of current staff and students, and questioned the capacity of the Leaving Certificate to foster a greater diversity of learners within the sector. The content of the Leaving Cert curriculum came in for criticism, and there were concerns over the possibility of rote learning shutting down the creative mind. Meanwhile, needs were identified to develop ‘multiple intelligences’ in students,and to address the social barriers to learning in society that manifest long before they sit Leaving Cert.

But the examination process itself was lauded as being open and accountable,and any replacement for the CAO selection process would have to be trusted bythe public. One method suggested to encourage diversity in the sector—while also improving employment conditions—was to tap into the early-stage researchers, looking to integrate them into academic structures in a more secure manner.

On the topic of differentiation, a recurring theme was the concept of ‘universitiesof technology’, though it was noted that some universities in Ireland already had a technology focus.
Distance and online learning were areas for growth that were said to need more leadership, and there was a sense of urgency about the need to widen civil engagement.

‘Learning is for living as well as making a living’, said one participant, who spoke of encouraging people to get used to the idea that third-level education is for them. There were calls to remove distinctions between further education and higher education, and to develop the opportunities for a greater diversity of people to increase their skills levels over the long term: ‘The person you are when you walk into a job on day one versus the person 20 years later is quite different’, commented one panellist.

More generally, competition was highlighted as an important enabler to drive excellence in research and learning, and the concept of institutions adopting particular specialties was not one that attracted much support. And while a discussion of funding was strictly off the menu for this forum, the underlying issue still erupted occasionally: ‘The funding of the system is fundamental to the marvellous concepts we have been sharing’, noted one participant.

The second panel-led discussion of the day covered the three ‘A’s: accountability, autonomy and academic freedom.

Many—but not all—agreed that higher-education institutions in Ireland need to be accountable to the public first and foremost, and there was a call for greater clarity of expectation for what is expected of and can be achieved by the higher-education sector.

The subject of evaluating performance aroused much comment, with agreement that the evaluation process needs to encompass the quality of the student experience yet not create a situation where paperwork dominates at the expense of teaching and research. Student feedback was seen as key to assessing the quality of teaching and learning, and the case was made for tools to be developed that are tailored to the Irish context.

Overall, accountability needs to be balanced with autonomy and academic freedom, and a message that came across more than once during the forum was that the days of light-touch regulation were over. However, participants also cautioned against overly constraining autonomy within individual institutions and moving towards a one-size-fits-all model: ‘We are working in a global marketplace for excellence and if a university cannot use its autonomy to compete where it wants to go with excellence we will be finished’.

In particular, the higher-education system needs to balance coherence across the sector and the scope for institutional autonomy and the latitude for individuals to take ‘risks’ and so avoid an overly homogeneous sector.

In his summary address, former RIA president Professor Nicholas Canny raised some provocative points, including whether we can afford to maintain the research facilities that have been built up in recent years, and he drew attention to the potential influx of students into Ireland from the UK when high fees are imposed on students.

Professor Canny echoed previously voiced concerns over the relatively high cost of medical training to the Irish higher-education system and also suggested that science subjects could help retention rates in first year by introducing smaller class sizes.

The forum was a ‘fruitful start of a process’, according to Professor Luke Drury, who closed the proceedings. ‘This is clearly only a start—we have exposed a wide range of issues that need to be discussed in much more depth’.

Speakers, panellists and chairs:

Opening address: Mr RuairĂ­ Quinn, TD, Minister for Education and Skills
Welcome address and closing remarks: Professor Luke Drury,
President, Royal Irish Academy Opening address: Mr RuairĂ­ Quinn, TD, Minister for Education and Skills
Panel Discussion: The System of Higher Education in Ireland—Diversity & Differentiation in the sector
Chair: Professor Eugene Kennedy, RIA Science Secretary, DCU
Panellists: Dr Ivan Coulter, Sigmoid Pharma
Professor Kathleen Lynch, UCD
Dr Brendan Murphy, President, Cork Institute of Technology
Professor Ray O’Neill, NUI Maynooth
Panel Discussion: Accountability, Autonomy and Academic Freedom Chair: Ms. Marion Coy
Panellists: Mr Tom Boland, HEA
Professor Doug Leith, Hamilton Institute, NUI Maynooth Professor Ellen Hazelkorn, Dublin Institute of Technology Professor Jane Ohlmeyer, MRIA, Department of History, TCD
Summary address: Professor Nicholas Canny, MRIA, NUI Galway, Member of the European Research Council

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