Thursday 29 September 2016

Kicking the can down the road no longer an option for underfunded third-level institutions

Martin Murphy

Published 06/09/2016 | 02:30

The quality of our education and our international rankings have been put at risk by larger third-level class sizes and fewer opportunities for small group teaching and practical work.
The quality of our education and our international rankings have been put at risk by larger third-level class sizes and fewer opportunities for small group teaching and practical work.

We will soon see the publication of new rankings for Irish and overseas universities. If past trends are anything to go by, the rankings of our universities may well be falling again. I hope this will be a wake-up call to all our politicians that we need action, and urgent action, to address the impact of a sustained period of underinvestment in this sector.

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There are many excellent examples of Irish universities being world leaders in research - we are ranked first or second in the world in nanotechnology, immunology and computer sciences. However, the fundamental measurements which drive these rankings have been going in the wrong direction for years. The facts speak for themselves - a 22pc drop in funding while student numbers increased by 18pc between 2007/2008 and 2013/2014. A further 29pc increase in student numbers is predicted up to 2028 over 2013 levels.

The quality of our education and our international rankings have been put at risk by larger third-level class sizes and fewer opportunities for small group teaching and practical work. Our student-staff ratio is 22 to 1 compared to the OECD average of 14 to 1. The universities have been reluctant to publicly cry halt in case they damage their reputation. But that hard-earned reputation will be hit anyway by any further decline in the rankings of Irish universities.

One lesson we should learn from the recession is that the country's future economic success must be based on sustainable grounds and not short-term advantage. As a small, open economy with few natural advantages over our competitors, people are our greatest asset.

The world is changing. Competitor countries in Europe and Asia are doing just that as they recognised that such an investment pays off in terms of higher rankings for their top universities leading to the creation of high-quality sustainable jobs and better economic and social development.

It's no coincidence that the Asian universities are making a bigger and bigger mark in the international rankings, as their governments invest massively in their higher education and research systems. They know full well that investment will eventually translate into sustainable jobs.

In the future, brain power and the availability of skills and research capacity will become increasingly important in countries seeking to encourage overseas and indigenous investors. Ireland is no exception.

The main way to ensure that we stay ahead of the competitive curve is through investment in higher education and research, which clearly needs a quantum leap in funding. Finding those resources poses a significant challenge to our political system, especially in the era of 'new Politics' where cross-party/independent consensus must underpin all major policy and budgetary decisions.

A blueprint for tackling the issues is there. The Cassells Report published in July convincingly makes the case that current funding arrangements are not sufficient and a new strategy that will deliver a robust and steady base of funding is needed.

I hope the Oireachtas Committee which will now work on this issue will adopt a long-term approach. If the issue is viewed as short term and becomes mired in political wrangling, inertia will follow and our universities will slide even further down the international rankings.

It is inevitable that calls for increased resources in third level will be pitched against primary and second level demands. I hope that this time our politicians, of all parties, do not ignore the legitimate demands of third level.

The worst decision that can be taken in business when it is facing a crisis is to take no decision. And that's what successive governments in Ireland have done in regard to a proper funding system for higher education. They have kicked the funding can down the road so often it's well dented by now.

It's time that we, as employers and investors, voiced our concerns. We need those well-educated graduates in ever-increasing numbers to kick start innovation, to drive our companies and the economy forward, to do ground- breaking research which will translate into tangible and saleable products and create high-value jobs.

It may be too late for this year's rankings, but if we can make a start at addressing the underinvestment in third level, starting in the October Budget, as well as committing to long-term funding, the tide can be turned.

Martin Murphy is Managing Director of Hewlett-Packard Ireland

Irish Independent

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