News Analysis

Monday 22 September 2014

It's vital for our recovery that we halt rot in education

Ned Costello

Published 14/04/2014 | 02:30

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We need to invest more in our third-level institutions, like Trinity College Dublin
We need to invest more in our third-level institutions, like Trinity College Dublin

Government ministers frequently extol the importance of knowledge-based firms in leading economic recovery.

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This is a good thing and is regularly borne out in job creation announcements from innovative, indigenous firms and high tech foreign direct investment.

Such investments depend on a favourable economic climate. But they are equally dependent on one other critical success factor – people: people with education and talent, without whom there is no scope for job creation.

Austerity measures can be successful in improving cost competitiveness, but they run a dangerous risk of choking recovery just as it begins to emerge from the dust cloud of economic collapse.

Higher education is the engine room of talent and innovation.

And yet a continuous process of disinvestment in our universities threatens our international reputation and the sustainability of our institutions. In the past few weeks we have seen an important analysis of the state of higher education funding in the Nevin Institutes's paper: 'We Need to Talk about Higher Education'. The Nevin paper contains some striking findings.

For example, in 2001, public expenditure per student in higher education was about €3,000 more than in second level.

Today, the public investment in a higher education student is below that in a secondary school student.

Some of this is due to increased student contributions, but these cannot offset the progressive withdrawal of the State.

Nevin's comparison of OECD investment per student data shows that in 2010 we were firmly in the bottom half of the class. The shocking fact is that since then reductions in funding and headcount have driven us further down every league table on international rankings.

All of this has taken place against a backdrop where university staff continue to educate increasing numbers of students, working longer and harder for a wage packet that in terms of take-home pay has decreased by up to a quarter since 2009. Other economy measures include the greater use of shared services, building on examples like the CAO, and the increased income from international students: up about 43pc between 2007 and 2011 in the university sector.

As a result of this, the negative impact of austerity on quality has been significantly mitigated. This is evidenced by the pilot national Survey of Student Engagement in 2013, which found that 79pc of all participating students selected good or excellent, when asked how they would evaluate their entire educational experience at their institution. Similarly, the most recent national survey of employers (2012) found that more than 75pc of companies were confident about graduates having the right workplace and transferable skills and relevant subject or discipline knowledge. There is enormous potential for higher education to contribute to economic recovery by providing our students with the best education possible and by continuing to stimulate knowledge transfer throughout the economy and society. The problem is that long-term survival on a starvation diet is impossible, no matter how robust one's constitution. Already, a significant proportion of higher education institutions are below the Higher Education Authority's own criteria for financial stability. In this environment, continued downward pressure on finances, coupled with increasingly regressive regulation, has the potential to seriously destabilise the system.

Ironically, in the coming week, the Oireachtas will debate the Heads of a new bill to allow the creation of Technological Universities. The old adage that structure should follow strategy was never more apt. That strategy needs to place financial sustainability front and centre and needs to stop the rot that is progressively eating away at institutions themselves and the student experience.

One way of doing this would be to commit to progressively investing the dividend arising from falling unemployment levels into higher education. Since a quality education is the best guarantor of a good job and decent wage, we have the opportunity to create a virtuous circle of education, employment and growth. It should not be missed.

NED COSTELLO IS CHIEF EXECUTIVE OF THE IRISH UNIVERSITIES ASSOCIATION

Irish Independent

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