Life Learning

Sunday 19 January 2020

Being controlled by State means we can't compete on world stage

Dr Hugh Brady

DO international university rankings matter? While rankings may be flawed, they do provide some insight into the quality of individual institutions and national systems. Furthermore, they are considered by international students and staff when deciding where to study or work and by multinational industries when deciding where to base their operations.

In today's Times Higher Education rankings, UCD moves up 26 places to 161. Credit for the upward move goes to UCD's staff, who, in spite of a cut in Exchequer funding of almost 30pc per student since 2008 and a 10pc drop in staff numbers, have worked tirelessly to maintain the quality of the student experience and their research output.

Despite a chorus of criticisms from commentators that Irish higher education is poor by international standards and reform, it should be noted that most Irish universities are ranked in the world's top 500 (of approximately 15,000 institutions worldwide) and that Ireland is ranked fifth for institutions per million of population. When speaking recently to the parents of secondary school students, I stated unequivocally that there has never been a better time to enter the Irish higher education system in terms of the quality and diversity of our institutions.

However, I can say with equal confidence that a tipping point has been reached. The State must now either choose to empower its higher education institutions to compete with the world's best or continue to pursue a policy of central 'command and control' and underfunding.

I fully accept that the State cannot invest more in higher education at this time. However, during my entire term as President of UCD, successive governments have found convenient excuses to avoid tackling the funding challenge. The latest excuse is the need to 'eliminate duplication in the system'. For the record, the most glaring example of duplication in the system in recent years was the proliferation of health-related courses driven by the State.

With regard to 'command and control', let me be specific. The Irish universities are forced to compete with both hands tied behind their backs. They are prohibited from charging those Irish and EU citizens who can afford to pay. They are constrained in terms of recruitment and remuneration by comparison with competitor countries where it would be unheard of for the State to control staff numbers, limit any bandwidth in terms of salary and constrain voluntary redundancies.

The Irish universities are very aware of their obligations in terms of accountability to the taxpayer for the investment received. Equally, they are increasingly aware of the imperative to maintain their positions among the world's top institutions in the national interest. However, the playing field must be level and the State has an obligation to ensure that our institutions are empowered and facilitated rather than inappropriately constrained.

Dr Hugh Brady is President of University College Dublin

Irish Independent

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