With universities you get what you pay for

Judging the outcomes of a university education solely on results is like judging a meal solely on the number of calories

Over the past 7 years exchequer funding to universities and colleges of education has fallen by 28 per cent while student numbers have increased by 18 per cent. Our student to staff ratio of 22 to 1 is now significantly behind the OECD average of 14 to 1.

I continue to be surprised that some influential individuals believe that these cuts have enabled efficiencies to be realised in the system. Sorry, that is simply not the case. What these cuts have done is reduce the ability of our universities to deliver a world class educational experience to the young (and not so young), and to deliver research which affects the economic, cultural and societal health of the country.

Somepoint to the fact that the results - as measured by the number of first, second and third class degrees awarded - achieved by our students are not falling, and argue that the system has been able to absorb the cuts without any fall in quality. However, degree classifications are just one aspect of a university experience. When I ask senior employer representatives what they are seeking from our graduates, they seldom mention degree classifications. They talk about the need for graduates to be bright, adaptable and flexible, to have excellent communication, teamwork and leadership skills, and to have cultural awareness.

Judging the outcomes of a university education solely on degree classifications is like judging a meal on the solely on number of calories (energy) contained in the meal. A meal eaten at a fast food restaurant may well be equivalent in nutritional value to a meal eaten in a five star restaurant, but would anyone argue that the contribution of the two meals to the well-being of the consumer is equivalent?

The facts are simple. The ability of our universities to develop graduates with the attributes industry and society requires, and to contribute more broadly to society through research and scholarship, is directly proportional to the total funding received per student and the research funding received. The appropriate split of the funding between public and private sources is a matter for political debate, but it is the total quanta that is the critical factor.

Like it or not, we are living in a competitive world. As the IDA works hard to market Ireland as a place for foreign direct investment and a place for the major multinationals to do business, the availability of well-prepared graduates is a key part of their good news message. We must ensure this remains a reality, and that can only be achieved if investment in education and research at our universities is equivalent to our major competitors in Europe and Australasia.

For the last fourteen months an independent expert group has been working on options for future funding of the higher education under the chairmanship of Peter Cassells. This group is set to report early in 2016.

The chair of the Higher Education Authority, John Hennessy, is pessimistic about whether any recommendations will be implemented in time to prevent further damage to the system and worries that ‘it may be several years before any policy can be agreed’. However, the 21 months I have been living and working in Ireland makes me optimistic that change could be achieved rapidly.

As an Australian, I have found the Irish to be more flexible, adaptable and willing to embrace change than I found the English when I was working there. Nevertheless, during my sojourn in England, radical changes to the funding of higher education were introduced. These resulted from an independent review of higher education funding chaired by Lord Browne, the former chief executive of BP. His review was completed in just 11 months and published on 12 October 2010. The Government of the time (which was not the Government who commissioned the review) responded to the review with its own proposals just three weeks later, and these proposals were implemented for the cohort entering the universities in September 2012.

Now I would not be a big fan of some aspects of the changes made in England, but I know the Cassells Group will be looking carefully at what worked and what didn’t work. In particular, there needs to be close consultation with the universities on the workability and wider impact of any proposals made. However, if the English can implement such wide-ranging changes on such a time scale, I see no reason why we cannot do even better. Indeed, for the sake of our children, we cannot afford not to.

Professor Andrew J Deeks is President of University College Dublin and currently Chair of the Irish Universities Association