Comment & Analysis
Oct 2, 2016

In the UK and Ireland, Higher Education Reforms Need to be Treated with Caution

Legislation for higher education isn’t inherently insidious, but any links between targets and funding should be resisted.

Léigh as Gaeilge an t-Eagarfhocal (Read Editorial in Irish) »
By The Editorial Board

Despite the year-on-year jockeying for positions that go with university rankings, higher education is not a race. So one might be confused then by the news that the teaching at English universities is to be ranked as “gold”, “silver” and “bronze” under the new teaching excellence framework, which is set to be implemented by the UK government from the middle of next year.

This is not to say such a ranking cannot be beneficial. The new teaching framework might provide better information to potential students on the learning experience they will get from their degree. In Ireland, one might say the same about the suggested reforms for the sector. The Minister for Education and Skills, Richard Bruton, has laid out his own targets for Irish higher education institutions that, if achieved, would be a considerable success for the government. No one could disagree, for instance, with the aim of improving the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds entering education.

See too the government’s higher education reform bill, which will attempt to “modernise” the governance structures of Irish universities. Universities, like other bodies that receive state funding, should have some measure of oversight. Yet the government’s desire to increase control seems increasingly inexplicable, as the funding they provide to the sector continues to decrease. Autonomy, so highly prized by universities, could be under threat if these reforms are not properly considered. Prof Eoin O’Dell, an associate professor in Trinity’s School of Law, writing in The University Times , put these concerns well, arguing that the government must refrain “from asserting control over money from other sources”.


Implicit in the English teaching excellence framework, which allows “gold”-ranked universities to raise their fees at the rate of inflation, is the idea that universities need to be answerable to politicians in both the level of funding they receive and how they teach. This thinking is also behind some of the targets and reforms put forward by Irish government for the sector. In an interview with The University Times in September, Bruton suggested that universities might have to prove their worth before they receive state funding. Indeed, he seemed to suggest that university autonomy was there as a means for universities to attain “high performance”.

How far, one wonders, will such performance be correlated with government-set targets? Over the last decade, universities have been forced to realise that governments are unwilling to invest money in a sector over which they have limited control. As Bruton comes to the sector armed with frameworks and targets, it is tempting to compare the reforms of the teaching excellence framework, and wonder how much attention he is paying to developments across the water.