Business Irish

Monday 21 August 2017

Irish colleges are slipping. It's time to let them compete

'In Ireland, we're stuck in a hard place. We do not have a history of an alumni funding network that sees wealthy past-pupils such as Nike's Phil Knight designate $100m in individual donations to alma mater colleges'
'In Ireland, we're stuck in a hard place. We do not have a history of an alumni funding network that sees wealthy past-pupils such as Nike's Phil Knight designate $100m in individual donations to alma mater colleges'
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

Trinity College lost out last week on an in-demand professor who changed his mind about moving to Ireland at the last minute.

The reason, I was told, was resources - both his own pay and those of the university that would employ him. Put simply, TCD isn't at the races compared with top US colleges when it comes to investing in education.

This is starting to matter more and more. Irish third-level institutions are sliding in global university rankings. In the last three years, almost every Irish college and university - from Trinity to DIT - has slipped in international university ranking metrics such as those from the Times Higher Education and QS World University Rankings.(Rankings comparisons are controversial, but usually only among the universities who fall.)

It's not just that such rankings are increasingly important for post-graduate employment prospects. Or that culturally, countries with the best universities tend to generate the best cultural climates. It's that third-level primacy is starting to be critical for a country's future prospects. Nowhere is this more evident than in tech.

A large chunk of research and innovation comes directly out of third-level campuses or college ecosystems. Indirectly, top colleges' influence on building tech communities is even greater, with the smartest students graduating to create new inventions and companies.

Ambitious students go to ambitious universities. That goes for everyone from Bill Gates (Harvard) to the Collison brothers (Harvard and MIT). Ambitious lecturers and professors are exactly the same. Seats of learning and advancement don't come from bare halls, they come from multi-billion dollar endowments, top professors and umpteen multi-million euro research programmes.

Even cities with top universities that don't rank highly in technical courses still get a boost from having the smartest students hanging around.

This is a big reason, for example, that London manages to rank ahead of Dublin as a European tech city: it has a couple of the world's top 20 universities nearby and a few more just up the road. It barely matters that none of the UK universities compares, technically, with Stanford or MIT, or that Dublin has more tech multinationals headquartered here. The universities' haloes are still strong and deep enough to act as beacons for future tech entrepreneurs.

And that is where resourcing comes in. Oxford, for example, is allowed to charge fees that rarely dip below €6,000 a year and are typically around €12,000 a year.

That money (which falls short of US universities' typical €35,000 a year) is used to increase those colleges' gaps over other institutions. And Oxford is permitted to do this, despite receiving public money.

But in Ireland, we're stuck in a hard place. We do not have a history of an alumni funding network that sees wealthy past-pupils such as Nike's Phil Knight designate $100m in individual donations to alma mater colleges. And we are not allowed to charge fees that would remotely reflect the value of getting a top education.

While this means in theory that third-level education here is more accessible to all, in practice it just means that Irish universities will always have an uphill struggle to generate anything that can compete with elite institutions.

Why would the world's best students or faculty staff come to Dublin (or Cork or Limerick or Galway) if we can't pay the same wages or kit out the same labs or generate the same research?

Politically, the issue of college fees is a non-runner in Ireland. Elite education has never been an issue that the majority of Irish people have cared about or taken any pride in.

But something needs to change. Professors and faculty heads openly talk of being ham-strung by not being allowed to raise more funds.

There is evidence of some fresh thinking among campus chiefs in this regard. Colleges are starting to look again at philanthropists and alumni as a way to bridge the funding gap. TCD's Launchbox incubator is an example.

But to date, our universities have been comparatively strangled for resources. If Irish colleges can't find a way of raising more money, our tech ecosystem will miss out.

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