Friday 24 May 2019

Ireland must make a choice on an elite university if education system is to thrive

Rankings, fees and how to keep up with the rest of the world. The dean of business at UCD maps out education's future with Gavin McLoughlin

Ciaran O Hogharthaigh UCD dean. Pic Paul Sharp/Sharppix.
Ciaran O Hogharthaigh UCD dean. Pic Paul Sharp/Sharppix.
Gavin McLoughlin

Gavin McLoughlin

Do you ever dream of working in a glamorous, gleaming glass building in Dublin's Docklands? Many people who end up there pass through another glass temple - the Quinn School of Business at University College Dublin.

Professor Ciaran O hOgartaigh runs the show there. He's the university's dean of business, head of the Quinn school (the gleaming glass box), and the Smurfit Graduate School in Blackrock, Co Dublin.

The Smurfit school's MBA programme is the only Irish one in the Financial Times's global MBA rankings, but O hOgartaigh says rankings get too much attention.

"We do tend to overestimate them and as an accountant I know the fragility of numbers in that they can change for various reasons. I met a dean from a Chinese business school…they're not ranked but they're an excellent business school.

"How do we know they're excellent? Because they attract about 400 MBA students at a fee of about $100,000, they have significant employment potential, their faculty are publishing in the top journals.

"But on the other hand, students look at rankings. The Irish economy depends on being able to compete and attract students in from overseas so you create that very good learning environment. And if you want to compete internationally, you must be ranked, you must be accredited."

O hOgartaigh says that if Ireland is serious about having highly-ranked universities, "society in general needs to make that decision".

"There are choices to be made about supporting one business school or one university more than another and the sense is that we all get the same attention, when in fact, if you want to be focused on excellence, we should make choices about excellence being in one place. Say in the graduate context, I think one business school or one university competing in that space."

That sounds rather like the arguments made by advocates of what would be a controversial merger between UCD and Trinity College. He's speaking very carefully, but could that be what O hOgartaigh is looking for?

"Not necessarily. It could be in different disciplines. You could have excellence in different disciplines in different universities…it could be just one business school making the difference or forging ahead.

"To me, it's about two things: we have great buildings, but it's not about the buildings. It's about the faculty and about the students. So you need to attract the best faculty and the best students.

"So to do that, you can either pay top dollar or else you can create an environment where faculty wants to come because it's an interesting place to work and there is a particular focus or areas of interest that they want to work in. That second piece takes a long time, to build that momentum, to build those connections. And that's to be honest the more likely or the more sustainable way…it's like in the Premiership, building the academy player instead of the transfer in.

"The academy takes a long time to build, and the academy is more likely to be the way in Ireland, because competing through the big bucks is not necessarily the way we go."

O hOgartaigh still teaches accounting and says he would miss it if he didn't.

Does he feel like he has to teach more than just accounting? In the aftermath of the crash, do universities have a duty to instil a sense of ethics in their students?

"I think it would have been remiss of us not to think about the curriculum in the context of the financial crisis…what I say to students is that the decisions they make as businesspeople change the world, for good or ill.

"We have a strand of the curriculum which is focused specifically on the role of business in society. I think this generation of students like it. Business degrees generally would have been focused on disciplines, where now we're recognising that problems are not solved in one discipline, breaking down those silos between disciplines and putting in broader perspectives on things that cut across [disciplines], innovation, entrepreneurship, business and society, personal development."

The rise of the internet has fundamentally changed how many industries operate. University education has been no different, and much attention has been devoted to the rise of Massive Open Online Courses (MOOCs), which allow anyone, anywhere, to take university courses online for free. But O hOgartaigh thinks MOOCs are "a bit passé at this stage", adding: "The completion rates are very low, at some stage those presenting on them will want to monetise them so people will have to pay."

What's more appealing to O hOgartaigh is what he calls Select Network Open Courses (SNOCs), which UCD is running as part of a networking arrangement with Yale.

"Our students can take a module on energy finance…which is taught by the guy in the forestry department in Yale…in that programme they'll have ourselves, people from UCD Smurfit, people from Yale, people from a business school in Madrid, from Turkey, from Beijing.

"The strength of a network like that is that if they have expertise in energy finance, and we have expertise in digital marketing let's say, then we can offer them what we have and they can offer us what they have."

O hOgartaigh doesn't see the internet killing off face-to-face business education.

"I think blended learning is more likely than pure online - in business a lot of it is actually about relationships and behaviour and working in teams, and building trust. That can't be done as easily online."

And what about the funding difficulties faced by the Irish university sector?

"In our case two-thirds of our revenues are non-exchequer. That's mainly from graduate fees, executive development and other revenues, so I think allowing universities or business schools to generate non-exchequer revenues is a very significant part of a solution.

"I think abolishing undergraduate fees was a mistake at the time," he adds.

"The stated intention...was that the people who were from less fortunate backgrounds would aspire to go to university, but it's a far more complex question.

"It starts in primary school, it starts in the environment they're in, it starts in the support they get at home."

But O hOgartaigh stops short of calling for the reintroduction of fees.

"Going back would be a challenge," he puts it diplomatically.

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