Thursday 21 November 2019

Richard Tol: Colleges falling further behind as Government fails to learn lessons

THE latest university rankings are out. Ireland's universities dropped a few places. Again. Cue calls for an end to austerity in third-level education. Again. But the Government does not have any money. The universities should learn to be excellent within their means.

The universities are not that bad actually. Ireland used to punch well above its weight with two universities in the international second tier plus a few third-tier institutions. The current rankings are closer to what you would expect from a small but rich country. Even with all the money in Ireland, a relative decline would be inevitable as countries from China to Saudi Arabia are building world-class universities at a frightening pace.

But Ireland's universities could do better, also without extra money from the taxpayer. For that, they need to solve two core problems: scale and red tape.

Ireland has more universities and institutes of technology than it needs. In this part of the world, Ireland is second only to Finland in the number of universities per head of population -- and there are calls to add an eighth university in Waterford. And all universities do everything.

The result is many small departments. This is a waste of resources: every department has a head, a director of undergraduate studies, a library committee and so on. Small departments are not very visible, not to peers, not to funders, and not to international students. And they offer a narrow education, with few electives.

The remedy is simple. Rank the departments. Close the worst two. Re-allocate the resources to the best two. And for the two or three departments in the middle, revoke their licence to grant master's titles and let them focus on improved undergraduate education. Tough times require tough measures. The Commission Van Vught recommends that the number of third-level institutions be cut by two-thirds.

During the boom years, Irish universities were showered with money. Research of dubious quality was sponsored, academics with limited potential were appointed, and salaries rose to the highest in the world.

The 2010 report of the Comptroller and Auditor General revealed a shocking waste of public money and management systems that were so decrepit that some universities could not even tell how many people were on their payroll. The dons responded with their usual "we are special".

The Department of Public Expenditure (and Reform, apparently) duly placed the universities under strict controls. This has stifled innovation. It has undoubtedly stopped some daft ideas, but it has also blocked new courses and new research that covers their costs and even turns a profit. Some once-excellent departments are slowly dying as staff cannot be replaced and the rest are crushed under a growing teaching and administrative burden.

People are leaving for brighter shores or retiring early, further increasing pressure on those who stay. Education Minister Ruairi Quinn has announced even stricter controls.

Instead, the universities should be set free. The Government should give a subsidy for every paper published, perhaps weighted by quality or usefulness.

The Government should give a voucher to every student and let them take that to the university that best serves their needs. Anywhere in Europe, if not the world.

Recall that the aim is to give the best possible education to our kids -- not to give the best education near to mummy.

On top of that voucher, the Government should offer student loans. After all, an education is primarily an investment in your future earnings.

The universities should be allowed to set their fees at whatever level they think the (international) market can support. And the universities should be free to spend their budget as they see fit. Some will choose to give a large number of students a decent education at a decent price. Other universities will give excellent training to a select few. Some may even discard their undergraduates and focus on research grants, donations and PhD programmes. And some universities will go bust.

Radical? Sure (on the Ireland scale of radicalism). But the current approach is failing. The Irish system of higher education can no longer be propped up with money. There isn't any. The choice is between continuing the gentle decline into mediocrity and a shake-up.

However, the response to the Van Vught report suggests that the powers that be prefer to be forgotten as the people who did not try and did not win.

That is a shame. Higher education in Ireland is still sound, and would have a bright future if reformed.

Richard Tol is Professor of Economics at the University of Sussex and formerly of the ESRI

Irish Independent

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