OUR UNIVERSITIES ARE in crisis. Ireland no longer has a single university rated in the top 100 in the world, according to the Times Higher Education rankings just released. In the last year University College Dublin has slipped from 94th place to 159th. Trinity College Dublin has fallen from 76th to 117th. In 2009 it was ranked 43rd.
Why is this happening? Partly because Irish universities are being asked to educate more and more students with less and less money.* This means that class sizes are increasing, research posts are disappearing, and teaching supports are shrinking – all things measured by the rankings. It is also partly because the Irish Government refuses to set a bold, ambitious vision, and refuses to give the senior management teams in the universities the tools and freedoms they need to drive performance.
In October last I raised the issue of falling university rankings in the Dáil, and the response I got said it all. Instead of accepting that our universities were facing a crisis, Ciarán Cannon, the Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills, said that if you looked at the rankings another way, we were doing just fine. For me, it was tantamount to saying that if you turned the rankings upside-down, we were actually moving up the page. When I asked what ideas the Government could take from Oxford, Cambridge and the Ivy League colleges in the US like Harvard, which are consistently ranked in the top 10 globally, he responded that he considered the Ivy League colleges to be “incredibly elitist”.
Government doesn’t even aspire to excellence for our universities
Not only does this Government not aspire for excellence in our universities, it actually turns its nose up at some of the very best in the world. This is small-minded, ill-informed, defensive and anti-intellectual. It is not so much bad policy as non-policy: it’s not that Government strategy for achieving excellence for our universities is wrong, it’s that they don’t even aspire to excellence.
This Government needs to start working with the universities to find them the funding they need and to support them in making the other changes required to realise this vision. What are some of those changes?
- We must emphasise teaching. Delivering superb teaching to our students is not taken seriously in many universities in Ireland in terms of career advancement. There is very little formal feedback from students. There are few penalties for doing a bad job. This is a huge problem – academic staff must be trained, incentivised and held accountable for the standard of teaching which they deliver.
- The universities need more, not less, money. This Government should play a greater role in helping the universities to fundraise. Some of the universities that do very well in the United States, for example, have extremely sophisticated fund-raising mechanisms in place for their alumni which should be implemented here.
- If the fees must rise, I would like to see the Government provide grants along the lines of the United Kingdom model whereby a very low, or zero, interest grant is made, which the graduates only pays back when their salary reaches a certain amount.
- The professional management within the universities must be given the freedom and the authority to motivate their staff, find the best staff, pay what is required to get the best staff and then hold that staff accountable to ensure change happens.
- We must stop accepting “average” as good enough. Singapore, with a population of five million people, has two universities in the global top 100. Switzerland has three. The Netherlands has five. It is entirely within our ability to have some of the best universities, at undergraduate and post-graduate level, on earth.
* Budget 2012 imposed a cumulative 6 per cent drop in funding for universities between 2012 and 2015 (starting with 2 per cent in 2012). Factor in inflation at 2 per cent per year (the most recent reported rate was 2.2 per cent), totalling 8 per cent, and the cut in real terms, to 2015, becomes, roughly 14 per cent. At the same time, student numbers are projected to increase by 18 per cent, or 30,000, by 2014.
Stephen Donnelly is an independent TD for Wicklow and East Carlow