Wednesday 18 September 2019

Taking the tough course

EVERY third-level educational institution in this country has its own school of engineering. Several of them do not have enough students. There are six departments of Italian. And these are only two examples of wasteful duplication in the system.

Next Wednesday, Department of Education officials will meet the so-called Bord Snip Nua, the panel of experts appointed by the Government to advise on public spending cuts. Their talks are expected to result in large-scale rationalisation, with closures and amalgamations and a voluntary redundancy deal for hundreds of academics.

So far, so good. This is an area ripe for cutting, so by all means let the cuts be made. But one has to ask whether the Government has gone the right way about addressing the problem or whether it has got it, as so often, back to front.

Recently, the chief executive of the Higher Education Authority, Tom Boland, said it was difficult to see how our current fragmented system, with its seven universities and 14 institutes, could deliver what is necessary to achieve national objectives in this area. He called for a coherent system of higher education.

He thereby echoed many previous reports, speeches and learned papers by experts in the field.

The needs of higher education, and the "national objectives", are well known. We want and need a system which produces graduates who can compete with the best in the world -- supremely in cutting-edge technology and innovation. We know that we cannot achieve it without massive investment. But the billions which creating it will cost must be invested wisely.

Rationalisation and cutbacks, therefore, make excellent sense. They must, however, be carried out according to a coherent strategy.

If the operation is conducted in the right way, the cuts will be justified and the value to the economy will be enormous. But hasty moves designed to achieve short-term savings could be dangerous. The record is discouraging. We have seen too many instances in which cuts were reversed, buildings and employees left idle, and services turned out more costly and less efficient.

There has never been a better time for a government to take points like these on board. They have a unique bearing on our eventual recovery from the recession and for our long-term future. For the health of the economy and the higher education system alike, the Government must take the long view -- and the brave course.

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