The risks of swimming in a small pond


Too many graduates go into non-graduate jobs

In addition to bringing the motorcar to the masses, Henry Ford was a bit of an amateur philosopher. You could fill a book with quotes from the man who said “history is more or less bunk”, and who told customers they could have their car in any colour – as long as it was black.

Bunk or not, I think we can agree Ireland would be better off if it focused less on history and more on the lessons it teaches.

I like Ford’s observation that whenever everything seems to be going against you, it’s worth remembering that an aeroplane takes off into the wind. Stormont take note.

I once worked for a vice-chancellor who made one of Ford’s quotes his own. Professor Sir George Bain arrived at Queen’s University in 1998 with instructions to give it a kick up the backside. Queen’s suffered from the ‘big fish in a small pond’ syndrome.

By the time Sir George arrived, measures were already in place to deal with the debris of sectarianism. Like many institutions, its reputation had been tarnished by poor employment practices. Many readers will be familiar with the issues, so I don’t need to rehearse them again here.

Sir George’s job was to sort the place out academically. That need was hammered home by disgruntled alumni, his best academics, and by statistics comparing Queen’s performance with other civic universities – like Glasgow, Leeds, Birmingham and Newcastle – and found it wanting.

Two things he repeated endlessly. The first was: “A good vacancy is better than a bad appointment.” Too many of Queen’s problems were caused by having the wrong people in the wrong jobs.

The second was: “If you always do what you’ve always done, you’ll always get what you’ve always got.”

The first quote might be Bain himself. The second is classic Ford. Such was the scale of Sir George’s task that the work he began is still not finished.

Across at my alma mater, the University of Ulster, a similar task is underway. Now under new management, Ulster is grappling with the challenge of delivering higher education in a multi-campus environment. It too is trying to position itself among the UK’s research-led universities, and finds itself in a perpetual fight with Queen’s over a diminishing financial pot.

“Doing what you’ve always done,” could well be the mantra carved across the portal of the Department for Employment and Learning. It is responsible for higher education.

There’s no real appetite there for change. The department has never been much troubled by that great driver of success – a vision.

For too long HE has been used as a parking place to keep young people off the dole. Too many graduates go into non-graduate employment after they leave universities. And employers constantly complain that there are not enough people with the right skills for the job market.

Meanwhile, we have two universities fighting for the same space, delivering undergraduate degrees (often duplicated) in the traditional way – six teaching blocks of 12 weeks over three years. Many back office functions are also duplicated – HR, payroll, finance and accounts, estates and buildings, marketing and recruitment, IT.

With the autonomy they exercise through their Royal Charter status, decisions about academic provision are made without necessarily having to take a longer view about the broad educational and business needs of the society they are serving. The current row over the fate of modern languages at UU is a case in point.

So how can Northern Ireland start doing things differently? A root and branch review of higher education is needed.

Services could be rationalised and centralised. Academic provision should be refocused. We don’t need two broadly-based institutions. Queen’s should be unashamedly a world-class research intensive university, shifting its student profile to postgraduate.

We need an international institute of technology – a polytechnic in the European sense – producing scientists and engineers equipped for the modern age.

And a new approach to further and higher education – involving colleges more – could offer high quality teaching to degree level. Most undergraduate degrees could and should be delivered in two years – not three.

Such a change would make better use of the money available. It would challenge the cosy consensus and be resisted by the vested interests. All hell would break loose at the challenge to tradition.

But with globalisation, we don’t need to be swimming in a small pond any longer.

As Henry Ford once said: “We don’t want tradition, we want to live in the present and the only history that is worth a tinker’s damn is the history we make today.”

  • This article appeared in The Irish News on September 11 2015