All signs point to a need for action on higher education

The latest college rankings again make for disappointing reading for Irish colleges. It’s time to stop being so complacent, writes Tom Boland

THE publication of the most recent international ranking of universities leads to a now-common soul searching in Ireland that has no tangible benefit, or even outcome.

Rankings of this kind have several flaws but they exist and have impact far beyond our shores. Few, if any, jurisdictions or higher education institutions ignore them, while many positively court them.

While all our universities continue to feature in the top 3% in the world, we cannot avoid the fact that the overall trend has been one of decline in recent years. This cannot be divorced from what has been happening in our higher education system for a number of years.

Since the onset of the global financial crisis in 2008, the number of staff employed in Irish higher education institutions has declined by 13%, (a greater proportion than any other part of the public sector). At the same time, undergraduate student enrolment has increased by 15%.

In addition, the total level of public investment in the core running costs of higher education institutions has declined from €1.397bn in 2007/8 to €939m in 2013/14. It should also be noted the rankings do not measure other stresses on the system, including the need for capital investment.

The Higher Education Authority recently reported to the education minister on the performance of the system and its institutions. While we noted that the system overall has performed well in difficult circumstances, we advised that there now exists a significant challenge to a system that has long been recognised for its quality.

In higher education and research, quality is everything, especially so in the competitive international environment in which our institutions, and indeed our economy, compete. While there is no mathematical formula to prove it, the quality of outcomes from higher education cannot be divorced from the investment made and how it is used.

We urgently need to develop a strategy for the sustainability of higher education. This is an issue Ireland has dodged for too long. It is easy to blame the political system. But in reality, broader society has shown no appetite to acknowledge the problem or engage with the choices.

An argument often deployed to deflect attention is that the system is inefficient. By any international comparison, it’s not; and taking the figures just quoted, it is clear it has become even more efficient in recent years.

We know that we face a demographic tsunami coming through our education system. Primary schools and, increasingly, second-level schools, are experiencing dramatic growth in student numbers which, based on current demand levels, will see third-level numbers rise 30% within a decade. This is a rich resource which many competitor countries would, and almost certainly do, envy.

Ireland rightly prides itself on its education system. But we cannot be complacent. At a global level, universities are economic powerhouses and those countries that will prosper economically and socially this century will rely on skilled and intelligent graduates to drive development. Do we want to continue to have an Ireland that can say with certainty that we have among the most talented and creative graduates in the world?

We have robust and sustained evidence from the OECD and from the CSO that investment in Irish higher education produces substantial private and public benefits. For the individual, it means better employment, higher average salaries, and improved quality of life. Last week, the OECD showed that an individual in Ireland with a degree will earn around €350,000 more over their working lifetime than someone who doesn’t have one.

At the end of last year, 6% of degree holders were unemployed compared to 16% of those who didn’t go to third level. A more educated society also leads to higher levels of productivity in the economy and a more cohesive society.

The expert group on the funding of higher education established by previous education minister Ruairi Quinn is the right initiative. We can be negative and bemoan the fact that it was not done sooner or that the timeline is lengthy. Or we can engage constructively with a process that is deliberately structured to allow time to fully research and debate the issues, from the value of higher education itself to the options for a sustainable resourcing model.

But we have a problem. Rightly, the expert group is focused on options for a long-term sustainable strategy. In the meantime, the pressures mount on students and colleges. It is time now to at least begin a process of rowing back on measures that owed their rationale to economic collapse and give some headroom to the sector to do what it has done very well to date — prepare its graduates well for life and careers and support Ireland’s economy.

We are approaching, if not already at, a tipping point. Decisions both in the short and long term will decide the quality of what we do in universities and colleges and, as an inevitable consequence, the future of many graduates and Ireland’s economic and social development.

- Tom Boland is chief executive of the Higher Education Authority

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