Now's the time to evaluate our higher level education
Northern Ireland is served by two large locally based universities as well as the unique contribution of the Open University. The value of the universities to the local economy lies, partly and critically, in the underpinning of their contribution to rebuilding the economy.
As part of the same agenda there are also contributions from the six further education colleges and the two teacher training university colleges. Most recently, Belfast Met has added an extra dimension to its curriculum with an earmarked business education unit.
The role of third level education is of course much wider than just the impact on the economy. Nevertheless, the important role of the existing third level education institutions is easily acknowledged. There is now a need to evaluate their contribution in the context of a Northern Ireland that is challenged to rebuild the economy to avoid a widening gap compared with the achievements of other regions.
There are no easy answers to several questions about what is expected from the universities. Writing with some experience of having served, in small ways, each of the three universities, critical questions on performance cannot be denied. Are the benefits and challenges of third level education being delivered with regard both to the career prospects of the students and to the emerging needs of this competitive society?
One answer would be to argue that university level education creates people with easily transferable skills and that Northern Ireland should avoid the insular perspective of a narrow local community. The universities must be challenged to contribute on an international stage. Undoubtedly, the 'world parish' should not be denied. Northern Ireland people can be found offering leadership and talent throughout the English speaking world.
Giving some priority (but not sole priority) to the local perspective can be readily understood. That opens the way to questions of scale, cost and intensity of the provision and experience available to young people maturing in Northern Ireland.
There are no easy answers to questions about the appropriate proportion of teenagers who elect for, and are accepted for, third level education. In the context of the UK and Ireland, Northern Ireland provides for a high proportion of teenagers to stay in full-time education.
Arguably, participation in third level studies is being heavily influenced by traditions that take inadequate account of changing social and economic needs. Also, there is tension in the way in which third level education is incentivised. Into that mix there are the distorting effects of differences in university fees, north, south and in Great Britain.
There is a tradition that the universities are allowed to manage their development and local arrangements without Government direct intervention. As higher education evolves, there is a strong argument that high level planning merits a competent analysis of how the contribution of third level education can be best designed and delivered. The present hands-off mechanisms are not explicitly identifying the challenges needed to incentivise desirable new areas of academic expertise. A rebalancing of effort to develop vocational expertise in parallel with older academic models now merits development.
As the Ulster University was developing, in its earlier days, Government policy influenced both Queen's and Ulster that areas of unnecessary duplication of expertise and equipment should be avoided. That general principle now needs to be reviewed. A longer term plan for appropriate provision of third level education and skills is overdue. This would open the way to better and more advanced specialisation and, just as important, would point to withdrawal of duplicated and less significant provision.
Over 50 years ago Northern Ireland took the advice of a formal higher level education commission.
A forceful review of the scope, location and social and economic impact of local higher education provision and standards is overdue.
Duplication of effort should be avoided: reaching high world-class standards will best serve the community.