Third level holds key to our recovery


LEFTFIELD:IN UNIVERSITY COLLEGE Cork last year, Nobel Laureate, James Watson predicted that in the 21st century countries will only be as strong as their universities. Knowledge, precious in its novelty and in its applicability, will determine the well-being and wealth of nations. Success in a knowledge-intensive world is predicated upon a third-level education for the majority, and fourth-level for a substantial minority, delivered by institutions performing to globally competitive standards.

The internationally recognised achievements of the Irish university sector over the past 10 years, have been accomplished with annual funding levels which never exceeded, and normally trailed, the OECD average. We continue to regard education as a cost rather than as an investment. If Irish universities are to be responsive to societal needs they must be resourced appropriately and enabled to manage their affairs effectively.

Irish university expenditure per student, on a purchasing power parity basis, is 30 per cent behind UK universities. Higher education confers significant advantage in individual lifetime earnings; personal contribution (tuition fees) should be commensurate. “Educationally enlightened” global financial institutions could provide a front-funded loan scheme for the projected tens of thousands of additional Irish students. Adequate future resourcing of higher education requires immediate and enlightened hard decisions on the part of government; universities will not be shy in playing our part. There are other, domestic impediments. State micro-management within Irish universities has become stifling. Ireland was ranked 11th in financial freedom and 11th in staffing autonomy in a recent pan-European study of university autonomy, when international data indicate that university performance is directly proportional to sectoral and institutional autonomy.

We need a staff management and development framework which accommodates the challenges of competing internationally for staff, students and resources and replaces a Victorian model designed for management of the civil service. Absence of an institutional management toolkit equivalent to that operating in European or American universities can be remedied by the Oireachtas.

A third challenge is a heretofore taboo matter. The State has rightly promoted expansion of higher education to ever larger proportions of the population. This democratisation of university education has inevitably resulted in a significant widening of the spectrum of academic ability in the student body. This in turn requires more learning support from fewer available staff for less able students. These efforts must continue to be fully supported.

Given the economic challenges facing us, it is also essential that we take steps to also support our most able students: those who, properly mentored, will most likely create whole new fields of human endeavour.

If Irish universities had played a stronger role during the past decade, perhaps Ireland might be in a healthier position today. However, it is also true that excessive concentration of power which dismisses reasoned argument and seeks to stifle dissent can also foster stagnation and despair. Future national success will happen only through a healthy open partnership between the universities and the State - one in which there is true accountability on both sides.

The effectiveness of our university education system and the future success of this country are inextricably linked. We are not helpless in facing these challenges, two of the three are wholly within our power and the resource challenge is not insurmountable. I would welcome public debate on these matters.

Dr Michael Murphy is President, University College Cork. This article is largely drawn from an address given by Dr Murphy to Cork Chamber of Commerce earlier this month.