Ireland is failing badly on its higher education tests

Our universities continue to fall in global rankings as the impact of chronic underfunding is felt. The time has come for the Government to make a few tough calls, writes Kyran Fitzgerald

As the new academic year commences, Irish university administrators are faced with a familiar dilemma. How to deploy their resources across an ever-growing student population without compromising quality in the process.

The ratings agencies continue to mark down our top third-level institutions and frankly, it is hard not to see why. Our campuses are bulging at the seams and people are taking note. 

Our two largest institutions, Trinity College Dublin and UCD have taken a big hit, both dropping by 20 places or more. 

TCD is now ranked at 98th, having been in 43rd place as recently as 2009. 

UCD is in 176th place, having been as high as 89th, seven years ago. 

There are now more than 210,000 students in third-level education, 38,000 at post-grad level. 

The total has risen by 44,000 in a decade.

In a sense, it suits the politicians and the academic community to encourage more and more down this route. Increasing the numbers of graduates is seen as a good thing, but could we be conning ourselves?

Parking oneself among the groves of academia for three, four, five years, may be fine, if one is either brilliant, or simply dedicated to the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake and realistic about employment prospects. 

But too many, in the past, at least, have hung around, wasting years on unfocused research projects. 

Many are left to pick up the pieces. Some have ended up in poorly paid part-time posts dependent on a professor’s whim, or continued funding for a research project.

The Government faces a dilemma. Our universities face a slow burn crisis of falling standards. 

Take UCD. The student/ staff ratio at Ireland’s largest ‘uni’ now stands at 23. According to the college’s head of communications, Eilis O Brien, “since 2008, student numbers have risen by 25% while staff numbers are down by 5%. We are taking in 5,000 students this year. We used to take in 4,000 each year.”

Relatively few permanent staff are being hired, with new posts being filled on a case-by-case basis. 

The gap between the top and bottom of the academic food chain has grown. Irish professors are well-paid by international standards. In 2014, 1,093 out of 4,327 academics earned more than €100,000. 

Professorial pay compares well with that on offer at elite UK and US institutions, though the figures may be skewed somewhat by the presence in Ireland of medical professors.

At ground level, you have the ‘grunts’, the poorly-paid part-timers performing a valuable front-line service. There have been real achievements. 

Our academics work much harder than they, or their predecessors did, a generation ago. The number of citations of Irish academic work by their peers has jumped fourfold since 1990. 

Regrettably, excellence in teaching is not recognised by the now ubiquitous ratings agencies which tend to focus on measurable outcomes such as research income and staff-to-student ratios.

Some continue to make time for their students. UCD’s history department, for example, targets troubled undergraduates for attention.

However, in some university departments, relationships are often poisonous due to the dominance of rigid thinking academics. 

There is often little scope for outside review or criticism in such cases. The search for funds has resulted in another unwelcome development. 

Sales managers, recruited from outside academia, also exert increasing power.

In some cases, funds previously available for investment in college libraries have been diverted elsewhere by people with little understanding of the institutions employing them. 

College computer systems increasingly creak, adding to the frustration of academics forced to engage in unnecessary paper pushing.

Irish institutes of technology have filled many gaps since their original establishment as regional technical colleges back in the 1960s.

There are, however, too many of them and while their original focus was on vocational subjects, local pressure has resulted in an increased prevalence of courses in softer subjects such as marketing and media studies. 

The long-running recession has left many in a parlous state, close to financial collapse. Mergers are on the cards.

According to Athlone IT president, Ciarán O’Cathain, eight of the country’s 14 ITs are in difficulty. They have been dipping into cash reserves which are running out. “We need a minimum of €1,000 to €1,500 extra per student”, he said. 

There are around 90,000 students in the institutes. The Government would struggle to come up with that kind of money. The scope for savings are modest given that salaries account for 84% of costs.

Former Enterprise Ireland CEO, Frank Ryan is now chairing the Athlone board.

The agency has been an important backer of universities and ITs, but Irish employers could do more to help out third-level institutions. 

An analysis of UCD funding sources reveals that whereas over the past five years, €150m has been injected by Science Foundation Ireland, €96m by the EU, and €42m by Enterprise Ireland, a paltry €17m has come from Irish business.

Surely it is time for the country’s corporate high rollers and entrepreneurs to participate more in the regeneration of third level rather than leaving it to the hard-pressed ordinary taxpayer.

The Government must make a few hard calls now that Peter Cassells has completed his report on third-level education, but will it be given time to do so? 

The rents crisis arguably has pushed the option of a further fee hike down the line, if not off the table. 

The student loan option is problematic, to say the least. The Government may have to push for more direct funding but at the expense of which other sectors?

The country will continue to need a vibrant, locally based third-level education sector, but potential areas of duplication need to be addressed. 

At the same time, there is scope for the sort of innovation that was displayed back in 1970 when Ed Walsh was establishing the future University of Limerick — bringing back ideas developed during his period in the US.

In the past decade or so, the focus has been on building up the country’s scientific infrastructure. 

But the humanities are due a revival. Time for our leaders in politics and business to sanction backing for satellite projects in areas such as music and literature. 

The success of many summer schools serves as a reminder of what can be done.


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