University crisis is 'greatest threat' to prosperity

Tue, Dec 11, 2012, 00:00

Leftfield:The growing crisis in our university system threatens Ireland’s future development. Rather than tackling it, the Government is denying it exists, and last week’s Budget will make it worse through further cutbacks.

How bad is it? The most recent Times Higher Education Ranking shows that UCD and TCD have fallen out of the top 100 universities globally. UCC and NUI Galway slid out of the top 300, while DCU and DIT dropped out of the top 400.

Employers are unambiguous in their criticism. They believe the quality of Irish graduates is falling, and has been for some time. They are hiring more and more foreign graduates over Irish ones. Last year, the head of HR for a leading multinational here told me that Irish graduates in his sector were “becoming unemployable”.

Harsh words. He went on to explain that at masters and PhD level, they no longer even advertise the jobs in Ireland. He said they get better post-graduates for less money from the US and other parts of Europe. I have heard similar sentiments from many credible sources in the past year: leading academics, policy experts and domestic and international employers.

I have raised the crisis in Irish universities several times in the Dáil. The Government’s response? Deny. Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn’s most recent reply started as follows: “There is no evidence that there are falling standards in Irish universities”. People involved in the sector, be they educators or employers, know that this is rubbish.

So why aren’t we hearing more about this? The universities are reluctant to admit the scale of the problem. They are heavily reliant on fees from international students, so they’re not about to draw attention to the problems. I don’t know why the Government is pretending things are okay. They didn’t cause the problem, and should be applauded for shining a light on it. Employers are more forthright in private. They tend to be discreet, and I’m told some have been asked not to go public with their growing concerns.

So what’s going on? There are many reasons, including the collapse of educational outcomes in our secondary school system. Ireland has had the biggest fall in educational standards at the 15-year-old level in the developed world in a decade.

Here, I would like to focus on two reasons: working practices and funding.

Working practices in Irish universities are archaic. University managers are told to deliver us world-class institutions, but control only a fraction of their own

budgets. They have virtually no authority when it comes to incentivising or sanctioning employees. I have seen practices in leading US universities that cost very little money and are highly effective in improving teaching standards. Typically, they involve improved transparency and accountability, something that’s not possible in any meaningful sense under current working practices.

Then there’s the money. Third-level funding fell 18 per cent between 2008 and 2011. Budget 2012 lowered it a further 6 per cent between 2013 and 2015.

At the same time, student numbers are growing. Add in inflation and by 2015, State funding per student will have fallen by 50 per cent.

No institution can be expected to absorb this and provide high-quality education and research.

So what’s the solution? First, admit that we have a huge problem on our hands. Second, engage the academics in fixing it. Work practices need to change. This needs the buy-in of the academic and non-academic staff, the only people who really know what changes need to happen. Third, tackle the funding issue through reversing the Government cuts and growing other revenue streams, including from alumni, executive courses and foreign students.

There is a lot of focus in Ireland right now on the issues of public debt, private debt and unemployment. There has been less focus on the growing crisis in our universities. In the medium term, it is arguably the greatest threat to the future prosperity of the country. It is time for more radical action.

Stephen Donnelly is the Independent TD for Wicklow and East Carlow. He is a graduate of the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.

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