Saturday 3 December 2016

Reversing brain drain will require us to invest more in our higher education system

Published 04/08/2016 | 02:30

The recent Cassells report on future funding of higher education in Ireland provides a worrying snapshot of the state of the system, and makes a case for a significant and sustained increase in investment. Stock Image: PA
The recent Cassells report on future funding of higher education in Ireland provides a worrying snapshot of the state of the system, and makes a case for a significant and sustained increase in investment. Stock Image: PA

There is the well-worn adage about Ireland getting a cold when Britain sneezes, but the shivers being experienced in the UK as a result of Brexit could blow some beneficial winds across the Irish Sea.

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The vote to leave the EU sent tremors through the UK higher education community.

University towns voted in favour of staying. Even being selfish about it, they understand the importance for them of being part of the EU family: their scientists get more back from the EU than the British Exchequer pays into its research funds.

Without wanting to profit from someone's misfortune, it would be foolish of Ireland now not to seek to lure researchers working in, or attracted to the UK, who may now see their funding disappear over there.

The value to Ireland would not only be counted in hard cash in the short term, through a diversion of some of that £1bn a year in EU research funding that the UK currently enjoys, but the opportunity to build capacity and reputation as a research destination. And, as often happens, the results of that research could, in turn, translate into jobs throughout the economy.

Sounds like a no-brainer, but it also demands action by authorities in Ireland, other than the Irish Research Council.

These who drive research, such as the EU, governments, companies and academics themselves, pay close attention to international university league tables when deciding where to commit resources, but the era of austerity has seen Ireland's top universities suffer in these rankings.

The recent Cassells report on future funding of higher education in Ireland provides a worrying snapshot of the state of the system, and makes a case for a significant and sustained increase in investment.

Cuts have reduced staffing levels in colleges and staff-student ratios are well out of kilter with international norms. A lack of state investment in new buildings, equipment and IT facilities has led to overcrowded and poorly maintained lecture halls, labs and libraries, to the point where some pose serious health and safety risks. This is the infrastructure upon which researchers rely to underpin their work.

If Ireland is to convince bright researchers to its shores, it will need not only some of that EU cash, but a Government committed to more investment in the higher education system.

Irish Independent

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