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From The Economist: The best universities now have worldwide reach (More Hunt Report thoughts)

January 21, 2011 Leave a comment

The Economist has a fascinating article on where the World’s leading universities are headed.

The best American universities are nothing like the stereotype of isolated ivory towers. Take the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), founded in 1861 to accelerate the industrialisation of America. Its ties with business are now intimate and global. Companies fund much of its research. Staff and students collaborate with established firms and set up a prodigious number of their own. A study in 2009 by the Kauffman Foundation, a think-tank in Missouri, estimated that MIT alumni had founded 25,800 companies that were still active, employing 3.3m people and generating annual sales of $2 trillion. “It’s a very entrepreneurial culture,” says Susan Hockfield, MIT’s president.

Will the Hunt Report deliver institutions of this type here in Ireland? (Me too).

The Hunt Report is now available – A few comments on centralisation

January 7, 2011 2 comments

The Hunt Report (National Strategy for Higher Education) is now available. There’s been lots of commentary on it: e.g. from Eoin O’Dell, Ferdinand von Prondzynski and various newspapers (see Ninth Level Ireland for an aggregation of many of the stories).

Here, I just want to draw attention to a conflict between a recommendation of the Hunt Report and Bord Snip Nua (Report of the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes). The two reports have very different recommendations for the Higher Education Authority, with Snip recommending abolition, and Hunt recommending beefing it up. This conflict has not attracted any attention that I have noticed yet.

Hunt comments:

‘The multiple role for and expectations of the higher education system will require a strong central driving mechanism. Since the Higher Education Authority Act of 1971, funding and policy advisory responsibility have been vested in the HEA. This responsibility was widened to include the Institute of Technology sector in 2006. The Report of the Special Group on Public Service Numbers and Expenditure Programmes (2009) recommended that the HEA be abolished and its staff and functions be merged back into the Department of Education & Skills.’

Instead, Hunt recommends: ‘The Strategy Group, taking account of the more specialised role involved in future system governance, took the view that the best approach to take is to retain a Higher Education Authority.’

The McCarthy group stated:

D. 3 Merge HEA with D/E&S

There is duplication in the number of staff carrying out administrative supervision work for the third level education institutions across D/E&S and the Higher Education Authority (HEA). There are 44 staff in the D/E&S supervising the third level institutions4. The Special Group is of the view that this staffing level is too high considering that the HEA (staff of 59) already carries out similar activities. The Group considers that the HEA should be merged with the D/E&S to generate efficiencies in staffing and administrative expenditure. The Group envisages savings of €1m and associated staffing reductions of 15.

How will these differing views be brought into register? Central Planning hasn’t worked so well (either in the former USSR or currently in the HSE), for reasons that good Hayekians appreciate: the existence of a widespread  ‘pretence that central government …[can] acquire knowledge which, in fact, is unobtainable’ (via), which can then be used to generate courses of action,  and even to know and predict the future.

It would be have been good to have seen within the Hunt report sunset options for strategies that were palpably not working, as well as a few clear statements of what empirical observations would void the recommendations of the report. (See also this post on how centralisation suppresses cognitive diversity, creates perverse incentives and misallocates resources). Homogenising the third-level system cannot be a good thing; as Ferdinand von Prondzynski comments:

The flaw in this vision is that it doesn’t work. Universities are at their most innovative and creative when they are allowed to pursue their own vision. So for example, the current German government is busily changing the post-War framework of universities as coordinated government agencies and giving them higher levels of strategic autonomy exactly because the ‘agency’ model has made them under-perform in global terms. American universities became the global leaders they now are from the moment that they were allowed to escape from bureaucratic controls. There is no evidence from anywhere that a centralised coordination of institutional strategies creates wider benefits for society. (Emphasis added)