MacGill Summer School: Ruthless focus on quality of education urged

Leading academic says people have to ‘ruffle feathers’ in order to make improvements

Prof Brigid Laffan, who delivered a challenging call for improved standards in an address yesterday afternoon at the MacGill Summer School Photograph: Frank Miller

Prof Brigid Laffan, who delivered a challenging call for improved standards in an address yesterday afternoon at the MacGill Summer School Photograph: Frank Miller

 


If Ireland holds any ambition to build one of the best education systems in the world, people will have to be far more willing to “ruffle feathers” in order to make improvements. International standards will have to be adopted when it comes to qualifications for staff and there needs to be a ruthless focus on demanding quality, a leading Irish academic has said.

Prof Brigid Laffan delivered a challenging call for improved standards in an address yesterday afternoon at the MacGill Summer School which closed yesterday in Glenties, Co Donegal.

She spent 35 years in the Irish academic system but has recently been appointed as the new director of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies at the European University Institute, Florence.

The education segment of the summer school posed the notion of delivering the best educational system in the world, but Prof Laffan asked whether “being the best” was beyond us and whether we had the resources to be that ambitious. There were negative signals about the system as it is currently, seen in the proportion of 15 to 17 year olds who were were not involved in education and training. These were individuals who would be vulnerable to unemployment and underachievement. Ireland’s proportion of such young people at 6.5 per cent was double the EU 15 average, she said.

Thinking in terms of higher education, building a world class system required a constant push for excellence and quality, she said. “Aspiring to be the best requires a relentless focus on quality.” Unfortunately we are “patchy” on assessment of quality.

There was no serious assessment of educators in higher education. This places a cost burden on a university if the wrong choice is made. It costs a university about €1 million every time they hire an early career academic when you consider their entire educational career. “If you hire the wrong person you most likely have them for life.” It was therefore essential to be “ruthless about the quality of those hired”.

She warned about Department of Education plans to cluster universities and institutes of technology, saying it was important to only designate an institution a university when it had achieved world class standards.

She also advocated a merging of universities in Dublin. “I would make Dublin a confederate university,” she said, something that would give it the research strengths to reach international standards.


Digital strategy
Earlier the issue of ensuring quality was also raised in a talk by Prof Brian MacCraith, president of Dublin City University. “We need to focus on more quality outputs. It is about optimising quality,” he said. He was critical of the failure so far to develop a digital education strategy given the growth in online education. Doing so meant that Ireland was sleeping through the greatest transformation to take place in the history of education, he said.

He was also challenging about third-level funding, suggesting we had a Hobson’s Choice of unpalatable options to help fund higher education given reduced support from exchequer sources. Either fees could be reintroduced, an education income levy could be applied or there could be a hybrid public-private funding system where the exchequer paid for some students while others had to pay the fees themselves.

Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn said that significant changes were required to keep the curriculum relevant to the needs of 21st-century graduates.