‘In terms of world profile, UCD is punching below its weight’

Six months into the top job at the university, Australian Andrew Deeks is thinking long-term funding, staff morale, the pursuit of excellence and a shot at the Top 100

Sat, Jul 5, 2014, 01:00

The focus on China ties into to a wider UCD plan to stand out from the competition. “In terms of differentiation nationally, UCD would already see itself very much as Ireland’s global university. It has been engaged globally longer and more deeply than any other Irish university, as far as I been able to see, and we certainly intend to continue that.” This means more partnerships with overseas universities “but also links with multinational companies here, and with the government departments here”.

Student loan system

Overshadowing these plans, and the sector as a whole, is a major financial crisis. One of Quinn’s last acts in office was to create an expert group to recommend funding options for the sector by the end of 2015. Deeks breaks down the problem into three questions: “The first is the quantum of funding, how much per student?”

He says this needs to be raised to the “equivalent of competitors internationally”.

“The second question is how the cost of that is distributed between the individual who benefits from education and society which also benefits.” In Australia, of which he speaks approvingly, roughly 40 per cent of the cost falls on the individual, and 60 per cent on the state.

“The third question is how the individual student pays for their contribution. In Australia and the UK they allow the student to enter university without any upfront cost, and then the student contribution is paid retrospectively. I certainly think we should be looking at such a system, the details would have to be worked out taking into account the Irish context.”

His preference would be for a loan system, whereby the debt is accumulated module-by-module, rather than a graduate tax which is paid on exiting college. For high-cost courses like medicine, the debt would be higher but “the person graduating from medicine would have a greater capacity to payback that higher amount”.

A more immediate problem is tackling staff-student ratios which have risen across Irish higher-education institutions from 1:15 in 2007 to 1:19 today.

“The first thing that needs to be done is the constraints on recruiting staff need to be taken off us.” But the Department of Education is reluctant to budge on the issue, given that the pension burden of universities falls on the state. It is also conscious of UCD’s track record of overspending on salaries; the college was criticised by spending watchdogs three years ago for €4 million in “unauthorised” payments to senior academics.

Deeks stresses that the clock is ticking and while the college has sufficient funds “to get through to 2016, there will need to be a resolution at that time”. A natural conciliator, however, he says: “We need to make sure the review group is adequately informed.”

In the UK, fees were set in a range of £6,000-£9,000 (€7,540-€11,300) and the government there made the “schoolboy error” of assuming the average fee would be £7,500 (€9,450). “The outcome was that most universities set fees of £9,000 (€11,300) as no one wanted to be seen as offering a second-rate university experience. So consultation is absolutely essential if the review is to come out with sensible findings.”