Third-level education system needs ‘structural changes’

More structural changes in the higher education system are needed as well as decisions on who funds it, Education Minister Jan O’Sullivan has told university leaders.

She said reforms must continue as Trinity College Dublin provost Patrick Prendergast also told an Irish Universities Association event the current model needs a solution to its funding problems rather than a radical overhaul.

Ms O’Sullivan did not address the question of how a sustainable funding system was decided, except to say it would be decided on foot of next year’s report of an expert group.

She said changes that are underway on foot of the 2011 Government higher education strategy need to be kept going.

“I know that it is no use to simply ‘rearrange the deckchairs’— we all know that. Structural reforms must create a better environment that will improve quality outcomes across as wide a range of activities as possible,” said Ms O’Sullivan. The IUA symposium on university performance and sustainability was her first address to the third-level sector since taking office.

While much of the focus is on systems, Ms O’Sullivan said this is because they must work well for students. She acknowledged that changes already taking place, including the closer working of colleges together, have transformed the higher education system’s overall performance. However, she said she looks forward to existing connections being improved and strengthened to deliver even better outcomes for Irish society.

Her speech followed discussions by Irish and international experts about the future of higher education here and how it should be funded, against a background of 15% funding cuts in six years when student numbers have grown by 25,000.

Mr Prendergast said the existing higher education model works extremely well, providing wide choices for students of what and where to study. He said colleges are collaborating more in research and other areas, and have strong and responsible governance.

However, he said, the constraints that prevent the system working as well as it should need to be addressed by all stakeholders.

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