Sutherland says number of universities must be cut


FORMER EU commissioner Peter Sutherland has said the number of universities in the State must be reduced to boost standards. Ireland cannot afford to keep seven universities at world-class research, education and training levels, he said in an address at the Royal Irish Academy yesterday.

Mr Sutherland also backed the decision to abolish the National University of Ireland (NUI). While he was a proud UCD graduate, he never regarded himself as an NUI graduate, he said. He also backed the return of student charges.

His comments come as the Government prepares to publish its National Strategy for Higher Education later this year.

The group, chaired by economist Dr Colin Hunt, is examining the number of higher education colleges in the State and assessing whether the reintroduction of tuition charges is warranted.

Last year, Minister for Education Batt O’Keeffe was forced to abandon plans to introduce a new student loan scheme after the Green Party vetoed the move in discussion on the revised programme for Government.

Addressing the academy’s Undergraduate Awards of Ireland and Northern Ireland, Mr Sutherland said Ireland had “famously failed to grasp many nettles’’ in the 2005 OECD review of higher education in Ireland, including the return of fees and rationalisation across the sector.

He said: “To avoid the difficult issues and put off the hard decisions twice in five years would be both irresponsible and damaging to Ireland’s international credibility.”

Last year, Mr Sutherland urged political parties to adopt a “Tallaght strategy” approach to the introduction of third-level fees to boost an underfunded higher education system.

Mr Sutherland is one of few public figures to criticise the Irish education system. He has said that poor second-level teachers should no longer be “untouchable”, arguing that unions must tackle the issue courageously.

Yesterday, Mr Sutherland was also critical of Government moves to reduce the pay of university presidents and other senior academics. Mr O’Keeffe has written to university presidents seeking a voluntary pay cut, while the Higher Education Authority has reviewed procedures which allow universities make special payments to its top academics.

Mr Sutherland called for a new flexible approach, “necessary to retain talented but highly mobile staff”.

“Our universities must have the flexibility to differentially reward their best performers, to incentivise those who are willing to take on academic leadership positions, and the flexibility to recruit, reward and terminate contracts that is the norm in the UK and the US.’’

He said his position as chairman of the London School of Economics had given him some insight into the cost of running third-level institutions and the ferocity of the competition.

“I can’t see how Ireland can afford this. I commend UCD and Trinity for forming the TCD/UCD Innovation Research Alliance. But will Government support the alliance with more than just rhetoric?” he asked.