Irish universities fail to make the grade

Irish third-level colleges are the beach donkeys to the thoroughbreds of the US when it comes to funding, yet they persist in playing a global ratings game they cannot win, says Kyran Fitzgerald.

Irish universities fail to make the grade

Irish third-level colleges are the beach donkeys to the thoroughbreds of the US when it comes to funding, yet they persist in playing a global ratings game they cannot win, says Kyran Fitzgerald.

Soon the country’s third-level campuses will be filling up again.

Freshmen students will be arriving at colleges where student-teacher ratios have risen sharply.

Irish universities have, as a group, been falling down the league tables of the international ranking bodies.

The recent resignation of the chief executive of the Higher Education Authority (HEA), Graham Love, has also led to claims that the Department of Education is exerting too tight a control over the universities.

But are the leading universities that we fund now playing in a game — the global ratings game — which is one they can never have a chance of winning?

The international league tables are dominated by US Ivy League colleges which have amassed massive endowment funds as a result of huge tax-funded donations from the country’s wealthy and well off.

Harvard University is America’s richest school with an endowment fund of around $36bn (€31bn), followed by Yale University with a fund worth $23bn.

These two colleges alone received over $1.25bn in US federal government funding.

The spend per Ivy League student comes out top every year.

There are over 30 US colleges with endowments approaching $3bn each.

American parents are willing to make huge sacrifices, stumping up an average of €60,000 for each member of the family to avail of higher education.

In comparison, Irish colleges are beach donkeys up against thoroughbred stallions when it comes to financial backing.

While Irish campuses have improved in appearance beyond recognition since the 1970s, they are bursting at the seams.

An HEA report has found that 40% of the current space in higher education is in need of major repair or replacement.

Last year, there were just over 180,000 full-time enrollments in Irish third level, including 125,000 in our universities and another 90,000 or so in the Institutes of Technology.

Total income of Irish higher education institutions in 2014-2015 amounted to just under €1.55bn, not much more than what the US government pumped into Harvard and Yale alone, based on figures from Forbes magazine.

Two years ago, the Peter Cassells report proposed an increase in core funding of €600m by 2020, along with a capital investment programme of €5.5bn over the next 15 years.

Earlier this year, the Government pledged to invest €2.2bn in capital works over 10 years, in an announcement welcomed by the colleges though the funds fell far short of what they had sought.

But other questions should be posed: Is the aim to extend higher education to ever-widening tranches of the population at a time when apprenticeship positions need filling a valid aim?

Should the State instead allocate more funds towards older people seeking a second, or the first chance at further education rather than cramming ever more teenagers into a third level system currently creaking at the seams?

Has third-level education in Ireland lost touch with a vision of what university life should really consist of in the utilitarian-led rush to produce useful components for the burgeoning industries which for now at least happen to favour the country?

Is an obsession with ratings resulting in an over-concentration on certain activities at the expense of a broader vision of what a university or other third level institutions should amount to?

The ratings bodies favour lavishly appointed campuses over those of more modest proportions.

And there is a strong bias in favour of colleges whose employees churn out material for favoured publications.

This emphasis on research “output” comes at the expense of pure teaching.

How often do students recall the publications of their teachers and how often to they remember the inspiration provided in the classroom and the time devoted by their teacher to them as individuals?

In the UCD arts department of a generation ago, I recall professors and lecturers whose office doors were kept open for students in need of advice and encouragement.

How much of this activity is recorded by the functionaries charged with determining which colleges should be promoted and which should be marked down?

The word “unsung” comes to mind.

Out there, a new dynamic exists.

Researchers from the departments of advertising and public relations at Chung Ang University in Korea and Syracuse University in New York have concluded that external prestige is four times more influential than ratings on student satisfaction when it comes to fostering “supportive attitudes”.

Rankings have a halo effect in boosting the brands of universities, apparently.

As the writer Louise Simpson puts it: “Students and parents are attracted to big names in higher education and rankings play a part in establishing brand hierarchies.”

No one can deny that ratings count.

It is estimated that Irish third level institutions attract around €500m in income from China alone.

Clearly, we ignore the importance of such income at our peril.

The ratings placed on Irish institutions can serve “a canary in the coalmine” function in warning about the

effects of neglect, but Irish universities in the past have often boxed above their weight by simply being clever, individualistic, and innovative.

Ed Walsh’s innovations at the original University of Limerick is a case in point.

Great philanthropists such as Chuck Feeney, the Naughtons and the Glucksmans, among others, have helped to transform the appearance of our campuses, but much work has also been carried out in modest premises that has proven to be of real worth.

Writing recently in nature.com the authors Ellen Hazelkorn and Andrew Gibson pointed to the way our universities have been reoriented in the service of the global economy.

“Globalisation has transformed higher education from an institution concerned primarily with community and nation building to an internationalised sector central to competitiveness and reputation,” they wrote.

Is it not time that Irish universities returned to their roots and that they reconsider the state of affairs under which functional targets take pride of place over the activities that really make our universities stand out?

As things stand, one has to wonder how much space would exist for the likes of a James Joyce or a Samuel Beckett in the thrusting “output” driven global organisations of today?

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