'Ireland Inc thought it would be able to compete and not pay competitive salaries. That was a wake-up call'
Published 26/05/2016 | 02:30
When the opportunity came to head up Trinity’s school of business, Andrew Burke thought he should effectively put up, or shut up. From his vantage point in Britain, the Dubliner had been harping on that Ireland lacked a truly world-class business school.
The UK is “leagues ahead of Ireland” in this regard, he says. Friends would ask him on trips home if he would consider relocating to an Irish university, having worked at both Warwick and the Cranfield School of Management, where he established the Bettany Centre for Entrepreneurship.
That would be like playing for Southampton, and deciding to come back home and play for Shamrock Rovers, he would tell them.
“I worked at Warwick and Cranfield and both of those institutions achieved a world-class position within a single generation of faculty and neither had a great university to feed back on in terms of a platform to work with,” Burke (51) says.
“Neither of them was located in a particularly advantageous place, and they certainly couldn’t piggy back on the back of a famous city.
“One of the things that used to frustrate me quite a bit, was I thought why on earth are the Irish business schools and the Irish universities not having a greater presence in the market?”
Look at Barcelona, he tells me, as we sit in his office in the bowels of Trinity’s campus.
“If we went back 20 years ago and said which city is likely to have a world class business school, Dublin or Barcelona, you’d put your money on Dublin. And yet over that period, Barcelona has not only produced one world class, but produced two. And when I say world class, I mean one top ten and one top 20. The highest an Irish business school has ever been is in the top 50.”
And so, when Trinity came calling with the aim of growing its business school, Burke said he felt compelled to take the challenge. “I could hear myself saying, put your money where your mouth is.”
Trinity, Burke believes, has always had an impressive offering in terms of its business school. The undergraduate business degree continues to be among the strongest in the country and is complemented by the MBA programmes, specialist MScs, Phds, and Executive Education programmes.
But it’s always been quite “niche”, he adds. The aim now is to broaden its appeal further.
And Burke doesn’t seem all that bothered about the competition from the other school down the road, UCD’s Smurfit Graduate School, which has a higher profile. The real competition is from outside the State, he feels.
“We’re now competing in an international market. The consumer doesn’t care about the differences; they’re weighing up UCD, Trinity, against the Warwicks, the Cranfields, the Manchesters. If we both go international, to our full potential, there’s plenty of room in that market. So I see the way forward in the Barcelona example. As we up our game, sure it will put pressure on them to up their game, but it will enhance the overall brand of Dublin.”
And Trinity is certainly upping its game, at least in terms of infrastructure. Last summer, the university was given the green light for a €70m new business school development on the Pearse Street side of the campus, funded in part through a combination of a European Investment Bank loan and donations from wealthy philanthropists. It will be the centre piece of a relaunched business curriculum at the university, which, according to Sean Melly, the chairman of the board of the university’s business school, in a 2014 ‘Financial Times’ article, was “no longer fit for purpose”.
The building is to be ready for 2018 entrants.
Like the future businesses that Trinity hopes will be created by its students, business schools must grow to survive, Burke says.
Along with prospective Irish students, lucrative international students are being sought, and Trinity’s brand, in the US especially, helps that cause.
“One of the constraints that other schools have is that they can get the European, and they can get the Asian, but they struggle to get the American because the American business school brands are so strong internationally. But we are able to get a good proportion of American students on our programme.”
Attracting students is a top priority. But attracting top-class staff is also vital, and at times, that has proven difficult thanks to pay caps for professors, coupled with the high levels of personal income tax here.
Burke says they’ve managed to get around the pay cap problems by appointing at associate professor level and discussing promotion opportunities.
But attracting top-level professors hasn’t proved as easy to overcome, with some conversations ending when the issue of pay comes up, he says.
“I’ve had a number of conversations where really top profile professors have heard about what’s happening in Trinity and have expressed an interest in joining us, and when I’ve mentioned the pay cap, they’ve already worked out the taxation, so they’re already primed to ask the question, how are you going to compensate for the taxation?
“I’ve said we have a cap, and I can probably make a case for x percent, but I’m not sure how far it will go. A lot of those conversations just ended on the spot,” Burke says.
Professors at TCD can earn up to €136,276, while the ceiling for associate professors is €103,261.
“If we talked about setting up a world class sports team in Dublin, and we provided that team with a world class stadium, a world class backroom staff, all the technology, but we placed one constraint. We said ‘you cannot pay more than half of what your international competitors are doing’. We all know that it will be an absolute non-starter,” he says.
“And yet, that’s the situation that business schools in Ireland find themselves, particularly at the professorial level. We’re not competitive at the top level.”
Mr Burke said that after tax, business school Associate Professors’ salaries outside of Ireland are higher than salaries for full (chaired) professors here.
“So if we are to attract top international talent to Ireland in order to generate export earnings to fund our business schools, bearing in mind that in seven years time around just 10pc of our business School income will come from the taxpayer - then we need to be able to compete in the international labour market,” he added.
“The irony is that removing the wage cap would enable Irish business schools to attract more top international talent to capture more global market share which generates extra private income to both fund their own activities and make an additional surplus which could help plug the funding shortage in other parts of universities, ie save the taxpayer money.”
Burke’s own appointment in 2014 was somewhat controversial because of his own pay packet. He argues that when Trinity came calling, he already had a “substantially” greater offer on the table from another university. So he negotiated with Trinity to close the gap, although the final offer (less than the €185,000 reported in the media at the time, he says) still remained some way off the other university’s, he stresses.
But he said he also pushed it because he believed that if they weren’t going to make a special case for a dean to breach the Haddington Road constraints, they would never ultimately do so to get a top professor. “I was quite surprised that Ireland Inc thought it was going to be able to compete in an international business school industry and not pay competitive salaries. That was a bit of a wake-up call,” he says.
Pay, he says, is a battle for a later date with the Government. For now, his focus is on developing the school, and boosting its presence. And a feature of that is the inaugural Trinity Global Business Forum, which takes place today. Its aim is to allow the entire Trinity business community to engage with issues facing the business community, and to network with industry representatives.
Panel discussions include the future of work in the 21st century, social entrepreneurship, the accommodation shortage and the future of Irish manufacturing. Keynote addresses with be given by Paul Drechsler, president of the Confederation of British Industry, and Frank Murray, the former manager of The Pogues, a throwback to the days when Burke was a young Ents Officer at UCD.
There’ll also be panel discussions on ethics and leadership, and whether we’ve done enough to prevent another financial crisis - topics of particular interest to Burke and his staff.
“When I joined Trinity, the first thing I did was I arranged to meet everyone who works in the school for a coffee for an hour. What became really clear to me was that everyone had a strong view that we should have ethics and values [engrained in the curriculum],” he says. “We want our students to have a moral compass leaving Trinity.”
The business school has a strong ethical focus, with plans for students to sign a charter at the outset of their course. Focus will also be placed on the well-being of graduates. The industry is failing to speak about stress in the workplace, he adds.
At the centre of any business education, he says, should be academic rigour. “The financial crisis wasn’t just about a lack of values. It was also about a lack of rigour in education. A lot of business schools had drifted into the zone where they were trying to please the customer too much, particularly on MBA programmes.
“If you look at the MBA market globally, I think the MBA market had been dumbed down incredibly, to the point that a lot of decision making had been made on rules of thumb and trust, not trust in terms of personal trust, but trust [in the system], that it works.”