Universities lose out because they lack 'hostages'
Our third-level institutions must compete at home and abroad, but do so with their hands tied, a top academic who has gone abroad tells Donal Lynch
It's been a troubling few months for Irish universities. The all-important world rankings, published last month, put only one of our third-level institutions - Trinity College - in the top 200 in the world. Similarly starved of funding, UCD plummeted out of the top 225, with the other NUI colleges and the RCSI trailing even further off the pace - veritable fun run finishers in the worldwide Olympiad of higher education.
The long and short-term consequences of this are serious indeed: it's thought the Chinese and other countries may soon stop sending students here. The multinationals, which located here partly based on the notion that they would have access to a cutting-edge workforce, could take note. The best university staff, who are highly mobile, may opt not to come or stay here. And the damage done to our academic reputation may take a generation to repair.
But while the universities slowly limp towards a crisis point, one of the men who saw them through their recent heyday - former UCD president Dr Hugh Brady - sails serenely on to pastures new.
He will take up a post as the president and vice chancellor of the University of Bristol, which is ranked in the top 30 universities in the world, leagues above our lot. It's perhaps just desserts for a man credited with modernising UCD's campus (which is now unrecognisable from the windswept compound of the 1990s), revitalising its masters and PhD programmes and presiding over a ranking rise of nearly 100 points during his decade-long tenure as president. But, as both the former face of Irish third-level education and the father of triplet boys who are now of college age, he surely must feel a twinge of regret when he looks at the academic atrophy over his shoulder?
"Well, absolutely, I don't like what I see, but you have to put it in context", he begins. "The universities here have really put their shoulders to the wheel. They're still up in the top one per cent of institutions in the world, despite having both hands tied behind their back and their ankles shackled as well. But it's not sustainable. The European universities are really waking up - they are becoming better funded and more empowered. Then you have technology-based institutions in Singapore which are just flying up the table. If you look at some metrics, the universities here have improved but they've not improved fast enough. For a small, open economy (which is) based very much on technology, that's quite dangerous. We can't afford to be mediocre in this game; second class, quite frankly, is nowhere."
Unsurprisingly, funding is the big issue: Without more money, the decline is inevitable. But where will that cash come from? "It has to come either from the individual or the state," Dr Brady says, laying out the conundrum. "The UK has decided a bigger proportion will come from the individual, Germany has decided more will come from the state, but in both cases they've decided that on the amount that is needed to give them world- class institutions. Our politicians have continually fudged this question. As long as I've been in education there's been another report on this coming (another one is due to report in 2016). The HEA has come out recently and said this is a critical situation now - I agree."
But in an economic climate where everyone is clamouring for more funding, is it the case that the squeakiest wheels get the grease? Some academics were appalled at the budgetary concessions made to secondary teachers, who seemed to be rewarded for their disobedience, while the considerably less vocal universities again drew the funding short straw. Are our university heads just crap at making their own case?
"Well, they're always accused of being self-serving, even though they're not," Brady says. "A hospital can close outpatients. A school can point to class sizes. They have hostages. What do we have? But having said that, if you listen to the political rhetoric, we all agree that we need a world-class university system. We're underfunded, not compared to the Oxfords and Yales, but as against the relevant comparators - the Nottinghams and Manchesters. What's needed now is political courage."
But adequate funding without what Brady calls "proper empowerment" will not work. This, he says, relates to universities being able to decide internally matters of performance-related-pay, something they currently cannot freely do, in part because their pensions come out of the civil service pot. It also goes to the heart of the matter of funding because it relates to the double identity of a university: a business that provides a social good and a recipient of public funding that demands unfettered autonomy.
During his time at UCD, Brady himself was at the coal face of this issue as he went before the Dail's Public Accounts Committee to justify the pay of Des Fitzgerald, UCD's vice president for research, who in 2008 had an outrage-inducing pay-packet worth over €400,000. "A university is a business that brings in tens of millions of non-exchequer income", Brady says. "If you look at Des Fitzgerald's case, he was one of the most brilliant individuals I've ever worked with. He almost tripled our research income under his leadership. He doubled research output in terms of publications and vastly increased outputs in terms of licences and patents. He was worth every cent of that salary. When I recounted that story to others in the UK or the US they looked at me in disbelief that this was an issue. The requirement should have been: do everything within your budget, but do everything you can to gain non-exchequer income and appropriately remunerate those that drive that additional effort. The rewards that come with that would be normal within the UK system."
It's been suggested that one of the ways to get around budgetary difficulties without necessarily affecting performance would be to merge UCD and Trinity. Many academics would be in favour of this but Brady is not amongst them. "Bristol is smaller than UCD and Trinity and yet it's 29 in the world, so size doesn't necessarily dictate where you're going to be in world rankings," he says. "If you look at the papers that are published and the collaborative institutions involved, UCD collaborates the most with Trinity and vice versa. What do you get from merging? I'm not convinced."
In a sense, Brady is the embodiment of the links between industry and education. Aside from spearheading funding drives while he was at UCD, he also sits on the boards of Kerry Group and ICON, a pharmaceutical company. Both the CEO of ICON, Ciaran Murray, as well as its chairman, Tom Lynch, have received honorary doctorates from UCD - was this purely coincidence?
"There was zero connection," Brady says, firmly. "You would expect the CEOs of the large Irish multinationals to be honoured by the universities. Which they and so many have been. These are companies with turnovers of billions - they are Irish success stories."
Much the same might be said of the University of Bristol's newest president. The son of a pharmacist and a bank official, he attended Newbridge College before going on to study medicine at UCD. He trained in Dublin and Toronto before moving on to Harvard Medical School, where he led his own research group. After that he returned to Ireland, eventually becoming a Professor of Medicine at UCD before going on to become head of the department.
He married Yvonne O'Meara, a consultant nephrologist, and they had triplet boys. During his tenure at UCD he was regarded as being tough, effective and reforming, if sometimes a little insensitive to political niceties.
He'll talk convincingly about the cultural and aesthetic charms of south-west England, but you get the feeling that the real reason he's leaving is that just across the Irish Sea his professional ambition will be given freer rein there: "If you can compare the situation in Bristol versus an Irish institution, the differences are glaring," he says.
"In Ireland we have constraints on hiring which they don't have in the UK, in Ireland there are limits on what promotional options you can offer (academics) - there are none in the UK. In Ireland, if you want someone to lead a business school, and want to pay them one euro extra for doing that highly complex and difficult job, you'll have a problem; in the UK they'd look aghast at you if you told them there is a problem."
The name of the game for universities, he says, is "running to stand still. Bristol is concerned about its performance and it's 29 in the world. When you understand that you understand that alarm bells really need to be ringing for Ireland".