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Re-design of the higher education sector in Ireland: Next steps

Ireland has been preparing over the last year to reconfigure its higher education landscape to ensure its further development and performance over the next two decades. To this end, broad objectives and a direction towards 2030 were laid out in the National Strategy for Higher Education (see ACA Newsletter – Education Europe, January 2011). In an effort to detail the provisions of the strategy, the Irish Higher Education Authority has now issued a key follow-up document: Towards a future higher education landscape. This publication outlines what is needed in terms of the structure of the higher education system for the achievement of the strategic goals in a medium term.  According to this policy paper, there is “significant tension” between quality and participation facing the Irish higher education system, “which needs to be managed in a sustainable way”. In this context, three main objectives are identified, namely the improvement of 
  • the student experience (i.e. access to different pathways into higher education); 
  • impact on society and economy (to enable competitive regional development); and 
  • international recognition of the quality of Irish higher education outcomes. 

As pre-announced a few months ago (see ACA Newsletter – Education Europe, December 2011), the structural re-design of the Irish higher education system will imply the consolidation of higher education institutions (HEI) (through incorporations or mergers) and the “elimination of unnecessary duplication” to “ensure clarity and diversity” between different types of institutions. In concrete terms, each HEI is called by the Higher Education Authority to submit within the next six months a proposal on its place in the higher education system. This proposal must take the form of a strategic plan outlining the possibility of the institution’s merger with another HEI(s), or its designation as a technological university, specialist institution or participant in a regional cluster. Based on a review of these proposals, an “outline blueprint for the higher education system” will be developed by the end of 2012.

The Higher Education Authority paper has been met with mixed reactions. For example, some experts highlight that the new document makes little attempt to explain how the new system will be better and how those using it (students, industry, communities) will benefit. Others suggest that there is no clear evidence pointing to the ‘deficiency’ of the existing higher education system in Ireland, which (some argue) has so far managed to ‘stay the course’ despite recent drastic funding reductions. HEA University blog (Ferdinand von Prondzynski)