It is ironic that at a time when leading academics from all our universities have been on hand to guide and support the national response to Covid-19, the sector comes under fire from online learning provider Mike Feerick (interview with Adrian Weckler, Irish Independent, May 21).
Mr Feerick, founder and CEO of Alison.com, has established a very successful business by offering free online courses on a wide range of subjects where users can purchase a certificate or diploma when completing a course. His views on university education appear to me to be influenced by the promotion of his own company, yet some of his sweeping statements require further scrutiny to test their veracity.
Mr Feerick's contention that "all knowledge is trending towards zero" in the internet age appears to be fundamentally flawed. The response to Covid-19 has demonstrated the true value of informed knowledge and expertise. University programmes are independently accredited, learning standards accounted for, graded and verified by the State.
There is no doubt a course taken over the internet, without an upfront fee has a place in the learning ecosystem. The dissemination of knowledge is a worthy cause. However, they are not a substitute for accredited university programmes. I suspect most people would prefer to be treated by a doctor with a medical degree rather than one with an online qualification.
The assertion that universities are shifting focus away from teaching, learning and research to "real estate and tourism" does not reflect the reality.
The issue of funding Irish universities has been an ongoing political hot potato in recent years. The significant decrease in State funding since the financial crash in 2008 has necessitated a range of measures across the university sector to seek to plug the gap. These measures include enhanced efficiencies, debt-for-capital projects, commercial initiatives and the attraction of international students to Ireland.
Students are at the centre of the universities' model. Enhancing the amount of funding per student through innovative and commercial means is a necessity. Investment in students to realise their potential is beneficial to society in general.
The powerful impact of a university education can be seen in a comprehensive report detailing the economic and social impact of the sector undertaken by Indecon International Economic Consultants, published last year.
It identified the composite contribution of the universities' sector to the Irish economy as €8.9bn, nine times the annual State investment in the sector. There is a €1.6bn net gain to the Exchequer from a single year's cohort of graduates. In other words, the State makes a net financial gain on its investment in university graduates. These facts contradict the contention that the universities' business model is broken.
Mr Feerick and other such online providers deserve credit for establishing a successful and, presumably, profitable enterprise which clearly meets a niche market demand.
He doesn't need to cast aspersions on Ireland's universities to sustain his own business model. Our universities have displayed great agility in the rapid transition to online delivery in response to the Covid-19 crisis. That, and the clear market demand for a quality university education, is clear evidence that the university model is far from broken.
Jim Miley is director-general of the Irish Universities Association