Thursday 17 October 2019

'Ireland no longer a magnet for top academic talent as Government sits on their hands over funding'- former UCD president

Former UCD President and current Vice-Chancellor & President of the University of Bristol, Professor Hugh Brady
Former UCD President and current Vice-Chancellor & President of the University of Bristol, Professor Hugh Brady
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

Former UCD President Professor Hugh Brady, now head of a leading UK university, has delivered a hard-hitting rebuke to the Irish Government over its failure to tackle the funding issue in higher education.

Prof Brady said the “ducking and diving has got to stop” and action was needed “fast” to make up the ground lost to higher education since the economic crash and to prepare for the Brexit aftermath.

In a breakfast briefing to the British Irish Chamber of Commerce, in Dublin, on the potential impact of Brexit on the UK and Irish higher education systems, Prof Brady didn’t hold back on home truths about how funding cuts had hit his native country.

“Ireland’s place in European higher education and research has suffered as a result of the past decade of cuts and lack of investment. It is simply not viewed as attractive a destination for top talent or collaboration as it was before the crash.”

Prof Brady said Ireland had gone “from being a magnet for top academic talent a decade ago, to having a research environment that was now significantly inferior to most major competitors.”

He also warned that just because it is an English speaking country, Ireland should not assume that post Brexit, it will reap the EU research spoils currently going to the UK, or make serious inroads into the market for international students currently attracted to the UK.

Prof Brady, who is Vice Chancellor of the University of Bristol, effectively its Chief Academic Officer and CEO, said “the state of Ireland higher education and research system should be viewed as a national crisis”.

He said “top class higher education and research costs money. It is a deep pockets game. But it is absolutely key to Ireland’s economic future.

“If Ireland doesn’t invest and, at the very least, man mark the opposition, what is Plan B for the future Irish economy after the relentless march of tax harmonisation has played out?”

He said it was investment in Ireland’s universities today that would ultimately drive the economy that will deliver the taxes to pay for vital public services and infrastructure over future decades.

Prof Brady’s speech, part of Eversheds Sutherland Expert Policy Series, was on the potential impact of Brexit on the UK and Irish higher education system but he extended his analysis back to the start of the global financial crisis.

He said while the UK response to the crash was to “steadfastly protect” its higher education and research budget, “Ireland went in an exact opposite direction”, with “cuts to finding, an unwillingness to  grasp the nettle of tuition fees or loans to fill the gaps, an erosion of its research funding base and a significant shackling of university autonomy.”

Prof Brady said “these strikingly different approaches to university funding have continued since the  Brexit referendum” and Ireland “continues to sit on its hands”.

He referred to a “long line of reports” on higher education, including  the Cassells Report, which were “being ignored” with “almost a celebration of this inaction as if it is a sensible policy response.”

Bristol features among the top 100 in global rankings, and Prof Brady noted that, before the crash, UCD and Trinity were in that league, having rocketed up the tables as a result of investment between 2000 and 2010.

He said “by a conservative estimate”, Bristol, a university equivalent in size to UCD or Trinity received at least 25pc more funding per student than either of those and the same was true of research.

He said on top of that, UK had  a well developed dual-funding system for research and Bristol had a €50m research grant to spend annually, before staff applied for research funding in their own right.

Prof Brady said while Ireland continued to fund Science Foundation Ireland during and since the crash, its remit was now “relatively narrow” by comparison with the UK. As well as that most other funding streams had been “cut drastically” he said.

He said the consequences were plain to see with high student: staff ratios, less small group teaching, ageing equipment and a digital and physical infrastructure that was crying out for investment.

Pointing to how Ireland was no longer a magnet for research talent, he added that it was “becoming increasingly difficult for Irish researchers to win prestigious international funding from bodies such as the European Research Council and the Wellcome Trust.”

He noted that most prestigious EU research grants were awarded by the European Research Council (ERC) and  that,  over recent times, the University of Bristol had secured more of those than all of the Irish universities put together.

“The ERC is an international badge of excellence – it is unconscionable that Ireland has fallen so far!”

Turning to opportunities for Ireland to attract more international students post Brexit, Prof Brady said “it should be remembered that the UK is taking mitigation steps to enhance its attractiveness to international students and top European universities in Holland and Scandinavia – many ranked significantly higher than the Irish universities - are now offering an ever-expanding menu of high quality undergraduate and postgraduate degrees taught solely through English.”

On research, he said there was a huge opportunity for Irish universities to form partnerships with leading UK universities that would give UK universities a backdoor into EU research funding.

But “when push comes to shove UK researchers are going to want to collaborate with Europe’s best and will find a way of doing so.”

Prof  Brady said if it was viewed too politically difficult for any single party to make the necessary hard choices regarding investment in higher education and research,  why not ask the Citizens Assembly to consider the matter but with an all- party commitment upfront to act on their recommendations? “

He said the Citizens Assembly had “done the State some service recently with another complex issue and there is no reason they couldn’t do so again.”

Irish Universities Association Director General Jim Miley said given Professor Brady’s  experience in both the Irish and UK university systems his comments should act “as a wake-up call for all Irish politicians on the continued under investment in Irish universities.”

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