University challenge

Tue, Oct 8, 2013, 01:00

Both Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn and some university presidents have shown a refreshing realism in recent comments on aspects of Irish education. Last month Mr Quinn defied conventional wisdom, when he boldly dismissed any notion that Irish education is world class. Ireland, he noted, still has a long way to go to have the “world class education system” that the country needs. For a Government Minister such frankness, in telling the public what they may not wish to hear, is welcome. It helps to guard against complacency, and should ensure a more realistic awareness of what needs to be done before the educational system can lay claim to world-class status.

For Irish education, perhaps no challenge is greater than that facing third-level institutions in what has become a more competitive environment for that sector. Increasingly, the overall academic performance of universities is judged and measured by international standards of excellence and ranked on a global basis. Rankings and ratings do matter: whether to governments who wish for high credit ratings for sovereign debt in order to lower their borrowing costs; or to universities concerned about their place in the annual league table. For this helps to define their reputation and to enhance or limit their ability to attract international staff and students.

In the most recent league table, published by Times Higher Education, some significant changes have occurred: with TCD, which remains the top-ranked Irish university in 129th place, dropping from 110th in the list of the world’s best universities. UCD has improved its ranking, rising to 161st place. This improvement was achieved, as UCD president, Hugh Brady, noted, despite a sharp reduction in State funding and cut in staff numbers.

Nevertheless, as Dr Brady has warned, a tipping point has now been reached. And this requires the State to decide whether to allow higher education institutions to compete with the best in the world, or whether to continue with the current policy of controlling what universities can do, while underfunding their work and limiting their freedom to compete.

As Dr Brady puts it, Irish universities are forced to compete with both hands tied behind their back: unable to charge Irish and EU citizens who can afford to pay, and restricted in terms of who they can recruit and what they can pay, and therefore increasingly unable to compete with other countries that are not so constrained. The UCD president is calling for a more level playing field, one where third-level institutions are empowered and facilitated, rather than inappropriately constrained.

If Mr Quinn hopes to make progress towards achieving a world-class education system, it is hard to see how he can ignore Dr Brady’s case for change.

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