'Ignore those university rankings and consider what we want'
LEFTFIELD:RECENT LISTINGS of Irish university rankings generated a predictable response. Politicians express concern, universities demand increased funding and critics decry our poorly-managed institutions. The charge that universities are seriously underfunded is valid. Teacher-student ratios compare unfavourably with those in advanced economies. The generosity of Chuck Feeney and Atlantic Philanthropies has ensured good research facilities but the funds to maintain and sustain these are totally inadequate.
However, criteria established by a foreign, commercial ratings agency should not be the priority targetted by Irish universities. Such rankings provide only a rough indication of global standing. For example, the QS agency ranks the University of Edinburgh as 21st in the world whereas the Sunday Times places it 39th in the UK.
The important issues for the Irish university system should be to determine if national demands are being satisfied and if changes are required to improve the quality and effectiveness of learning and research.
Leaders from a cross-section of society have described the qualities of the ideal graduate. They include comprehensive knowledge and understanding of their discipline, the ability to analyse and process information, solve problems, communicate in more than one language and have a code of ethics consistent with responsible citizenship.
These are worthy goals but attainment requires considerable rethinking of current curricula and teaching methods. Much university teaching is teacher-centred with a professor lecturing to large numbers of students in a classroom. This traditional pedagogy, although a useful part of the process, does not facilitate acquisition of the aforementioned qualities.
Change is needed but high student-teacher ratios, lack of operational funds and heavy institutional emphasis on research productivity militate against pedagogic innovation. Nonetheless, there are encouraging pockets of enlightened teaching across the sector with use of online teaching resources, customised social networks, problem-based learning approaches and use of small tutorial groups to emphasise teamwork and problem solving. These developments change the role of the University teacher who, instead of serving principally as the provider of information, becomes a guide and facilitator enabling the student to self-direct their learning. Institutions must embrace and encourage this transition of educational process.
Universities also have a responsibility to discover and assimilate new knowledge and contribute to increased understanding of the society in which we live. However, rigorous review procedures are needed to ensure that researchers and their programmes are of the highest quality. Research and development is not a single word and attempts to assess institutional research in terms of immediate economic return are misguided.
The challenge for Irish universities is to use available resources as effectively as possible to serve national needs. This requires clear definition of institutional missions, effective deployment of staff and faculty to achieve an optimal environment for learning, and responsible management of financial resources. Cost savings should be sought through reduction of course offerings, rationalisation of programmes and centralisation of many services.
Opportunities for revenue generation must also be exploited. Student fees, coupled with a national income- contingent student loan programme, are an inevitable and essential step. Other possible sources of revenue include sale of online courses through a national agency and the licensing and sale of intellectual property.
Ireland is a small country with few universities and it offers an ideal laboratory in which to develop an outstanding national university system which provides an optimal learning environment, produces excellent graduates and generates high-quality research to advance national cultural, social and economic needs.
Such a goal is eminently achievable but requires considered understanding of national needs and careful, creative planning rather than unthinking pursuit of an arbitrary standard established by an international agency.
Roger Downer is president emeritus of the University of Limerick