Universities’ commitment must be matched by investment

Without radical change and serious investment, Irish students will be at a clear competitive disadvantage to their peers in every country in Europe., writes Patrick O’Shea.

Robert Kane, the founding president of Queen’s College Cork, addressed the 115 enrolled students on the day the University opened in 1849, saying: “Here, after nearly a 1,000 years, we open now the portals of this edifice and accept the task of training the youth of Munster”.

It was a time of great difficulty in Ireland, but also a time to invest for the future.

I am certain that my predecessor would be proud to know that in the intervening years University College Cork has not only “trained” the youth of Munster but has enriched the lives of, and in turn been enriched by, hundreds of thousands of graduates through the generations from all over Ireland and the world.

This two-way enrichment has applied to each of the seven universities across the country.

But that is the past, what of the future?

Irish universities are dedicated to enhancing the social, cultural and economic well-being of our nation. Maintaining and raising the quality of Irish graduates across all disciplines requires substantial change within our institutions, supported by significant State and private funding for Ireland’s universities.

Without both change and investment, danger looms in what is a highly competitive international environment. A decade of under-investment by the State leaves this and future generations of students exposed in a gathering storm.

Third-level enrolment, which has already grown by 28% in the past 10 years, will peak when today’s seven and eight-year olds-are seeking access to university.

Some 25,000 more students will arrive at the gates of our seven universities in 2030. Without radical change and serious investment, they will be at a clear competitive disadvantage to their peers in every country in Europe. This stark inevitability should give parents, educators, civil servants, politicians and employers serious pause for thought.

Peter Cassells, chair of the Government’s Expert Group on the Future Funding of Higher Education, makes a cast-iron case for game changing investment in third level but says that:

We also need to demand that we get higher quality and better outcomes for our investment. We need a system that is responsive to the changing and diverse needs of learners, society and the economy

The pace and extent of change must be more fully embraced by all stakeholders to deliver not just competitive but world-leading standards of third- level education and consequent benefits to Irish society. In this regard, Ireland’s universities are determined to lead.

For the first time, in the long history of our universities, all seven have solemnly committed to a singular charter for change. The successful implementation of this charter will deliver a sustainable university system for

Ireland’s future talent of which we can all be proud. It will help realise the national ambition to be competitive with the best in Europe, provided it is matched with a complete resolution of chronic State under-investment.

The charter commits to developing a coherent national programme in digital learning. It commits to driving adult life-long learning from the current 6.5% to the EU average of 10.7%.

It commits to expanding research capacity with balanced prioritisation of frontier and applied research and to increasing the output of PhD graduates by 30%. The charter also commits to increasing access numbers by 30% and to developing stronger active links with business and civic society. It also commits to advancing diversity, inclusion and equality more broadly and deeply.

Each of our universities has a dead-eyed determination to meet Cassells’ critical demand. Each is acutely aware of its responsibilities in this regard. Through the Irish Universities Association, we have mobilised to deliver a coherent, co-ordinated and far-reaching plan of action.

Its successful implementation will not be easy. However, given the stakes for Ireland’s future talent, it behoves all of us with responsibility for higher quality and better outcomes, to deliver. Government is also a lead actor. Its stated target is to make the Irish education system the “best in Europe” by 2026. Irish universities share this ambition. Maintaining and enhancing the quality of Irish graduates across all disciplines requires marriage of the initiatives specified in this charter with the necessary State investment.

It also absolutely requires the Government to loosen the tight binding on individual universities to develop human resource plans critical to their needs and growth levels.

The political community must step up to the challenge now and match the ambition and commitment of the universities. Politicians accept that there is a serious funding issue while at the same time obsessing about the solution they don’t want. We need leadership across the political landscape on this issue. It’s a genuine national issue impacting families in every constituency.

According to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, staffing levels in primary and secondary schools have increased by mid-teens percentages over the past 10 years. Meanwhile, staffing levels in third level have decreased by 14% while student numbers are up by nearly a third.

Politicians privately admit that there are votes at play in primary and secondary schools. Well it’s time for the electorate to wake up to the importance of third level and how it directly impacts the wellbeing of our children, grandchildren, society and economy.

It’s time to pose pointed questions to politicians across the spectrum and not be fobbed off with vague platitudes. It’s time to lose patience with the prevaricators.

It’s now time to demand a sustainable investment model and to remove restrictive measures for third-level education in Ireland. I’m an optimist, and I’m convinced that by working together in partnership, we will prosper.

The charter maps clear commitments from our universities. We have aligned these commitments with the Government’s Higher Education System Performance Framework and with the specific ambition of Project Ireland 2040.

We pledge to enhance performance and delivery across critical areas of third-level access, education, research and innovation. There is a clear-cut obligation on the universities to deliver. We’re up for it. Are you?

Professor Patrick O’Shea is president of UCC and chair of the Irish Universities Association


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