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Taking very seriously the tradition of articulating ambitious resolutions early in the new year, the Irish government released on 11 January a sweeping plan for the development and performance of Irish higher education over the next two decades. The National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030 highlights the central role that higher education has played in the economic and social development of the country in recent years. It also argues explicitly for the necessity of the sector to continue facilitating opportunities for advancement of Ireland, at the level of both individuals and society at large. In a context of financial scarcity (at least at the beginning of the road towards 2030) and an expanding array of new challenges, Irish higher education is called upon to make a “full contribution to the tasks of improving the quality of life for Irish citizens, and of tackling the world’s major social, economic, and environmental challenges”.
A six-point vision serves as a guide for how to begin addressing this tall order, including expanded participation in higher education; enhancements in the quality of the student experience, especially in the areas of teaching and learning; the implementation of a “robust performance management framework” to ensure quality in “teaching, scholarship and external engagement”; excellence in research and innovation; effective engagement with local communities; and meaningful internationalisation. To achieve this broad range of objectives, the report zeroes in on the need for fundamental “system changes”. At the level of governance and leadership, aligning performance, autonomy and accountability are seen as crucial for the identification, communication, and achievement of national priorities. The landscape of institutions must be more “coherent”, including regional clusters of collaborating institutions and an overall smaller number of institutions but of larger size. And students are called upon to shoulder more of the funding burden implicit in all of this with a combination of upfront fees and an income-contingent loan scheme.
The Irish government has formally endorsed the report as “the future blueprint for the sector” but Ireland’s deep financial woes and uncertain political landscape complicate the immediate outlook for these bold plans. The emergency budget approved in December did not result in as deep a cut in higher education spending as some had feared, and is even offset further by the increase in the flat higher education student contribution from EUR 1 500 to EUR 2 000. But the capital grant for universities dropped 50% from EUR 169 million in 2010 to EUR 83 million in 2011. More fundamentally, others question whether more centralised management will necessarily deliver the expected results.