When John Hennessy surveys the state of higher education in Ireland, he's reminded of the moment almost 50 years ago when Donogh O'Malley announced plans for free second-level education for every child. The country was at a crossroads. There was huge economic potential. It just needed to be unlocked through a visionary public policy.
"That policy sowed the seeds of our economic success and I feel we're at a similar point now with third level," says Hennessy, who has just completed five years as chairman of the Higher Education Authority.
“Growth at third-level will be phenomenal between now and 2030, given the demographics of the country. We need to ensure everyone is able to progress from second level and access quality third-level or further education that’s free at the point of access.
“It all needs to be connected. There should be pathways available for all students to pass through the system at their own pace... It requires a new system of tertiary education based on the needs of students rather than colleges.”
Huge reform and increased funding is urgently required, he says, if we are to have any chance in competing in the “global war on talent”.The reality is that third-level has been through the mill, he says.
Seven years of spending cuts, rising student numbers and falling staff numbers have taken their toll. It’s reached a point where it is in danger of “stressing the system to the point of breaking”.
“The lack of funding is really hurting the system,” he says. “The rules which apply to colleges – such as the employment control framework – are very challenging. It’s very difficult to refresh staff or do visionary things or go up the world rankings against that backdrop. Colleges need much more autonomy.
“There is a risk – given what we’re investing per student – that we are compromising quality. It’s hard to measure. But if others are spending more, and we’re falling down the scales, something is happening. If you continue to underfund growth, something will break. You don’t know where.”
There are a range of obstacles in the way.
Interest groups in primary and secondary tend to shout louder and receive proportionately more funding.
“There are no votes in third level,” he says.”They might be just as determined, but they aren’t as vocal.”
The lack of multi-annual budgets means universities cannot plan far ahead.
“It’s madness,” he says. “We’re making sub-optimal decisions based on 12-month windows.”
And then there is the “command and control” approach of Government towards third-level. “We need to give them more freedom to grow and to hire and fire.”
Hennessy, an engineer who went on to become managing director of Ericsson Ireland between 2003 and 2010, says these obstacles mean colleges are operating with one hand tied behind their back.
The fact that most colleges have adapted and grown in response to these kind of pressure is testament to the talent of senior figures in higher education.
He says greater State funding and contributions from employers are key. “The Government can’t afford to keep putting off these decisions. What’s at stake? The industrial development of the country, our international competitiveness and our social development. We’re sailing very close to the wind.”