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Dublin: 1°C Thursday 21 January 2021

Column: On this day in the year 2020 – Irish universities

From an imagined post-2020 perspective, Dr James Heaney, Lecturer in English and Irish Studies, considers how our current third-level education crisis might play out in the near future.

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From an imagined post-2020 perspective, Dr James Heaney, Lecturer in English and Irish Studies at Carlow College, Carlow, considers how the crisis currently being experienced by Irish universities might play out in the near future. This is the first in a series of semi-serious articles which will see experts involved in different areas of Irish life contemplate how issues of current controversy might develop in ‘the coming times’.

ON THIS DAY in 2020 three Irish universities made it into the top 50 of the Times global University Rankings report. This was the first time that Irish institutions had achieved such high rankings. The results were all the more remarkable as only seven years previously, in 2013, the top-placed Irish university, Trinity College, had come in at 129 in the rankings, followed by UCD at 161. Three other Irish universities achieved rankings of between 250 and 400, in that year, and two failed to make the cut for the world’s top 400 institutions.

Phil Baty, editor of the Times Rankings in 2013, had attributed the poor showing by Irish universities to the policy of economic austerity being pursued by Irish governments at the time. Other European countries such as “Germany, France, The Netherlands, Belgium, Austria had also seen their top universities falling,” Mr Baty noted, “and it really is about austerity … Those cutting education are seeing rankings fall.”

A number of Irish lecturers and teaching organisations had themselves raised concerns about the impact that austerity measures were having on Irish universities, in 2013. Much of this anxiety focused on the issue of funding. The President and Provost of UCD and Trinity College, respectively, had both called for the reintroduction of fees for third-level students in late 2013; a call which was echoed in a discussion paper on the funding of Irish universities issued by the HEA the following year.

Many academics and students were strongly opposed the idea of re-introducing fees, however, and maintained that the crisis in Irish universities went much deeper than the issue of funding alone. In 2012, Dr Mary Gallagher’s study Academic Armageddon – An Irish Requiem for Higher Education had warned of a seemingly interminable decline in academic standards as Irish universities – mimicking international trends – subordinated their traditional educational values to business objectives and the needs of the free market economy. In the same year, Dr Brendan Walsh, in Degrees of Nonsense – The Demise of the University in Ireland had complained that Irish universities:

..without a murmur, have embraced the credo of the market and its attendant commandments: measurability, accountability, outcomes and applicability. Only that which can be measured within criteria set by those outside the academy may be deemed of value. If it cannot be calculated it must be spurious.

Defend the Irish University

In October 2013, a new organisation made up of Irish academics, university students, and concerned citizenry was founded in Dublin. In opposition to the ‘commercialisation’ of third-level education ‘Defend the Irish University – A Charter for Action’ defined the Irish university as ‘a public good’, the main aim of whose teaching was ‘the dissemination of knowledge, and the fostering of creativity’.

‘Defend the Irish University’ was one of the organisations involved in the widespread protests and ‘sit-ins’ that followed the government’s decision to re-introduce fees in 2015, protests which paralleled grassroots-democracy movements in other European countries such as the Democracia Real Ya [Real Democracy Now] and the los indignados movement in Spain. These demonstrations led to the so-called ‘Student-Rising’ in Dublin (and other Irish cities) in the Spring of 2016, which saw protestors occupy buildings and other public-spaces in the capital city in a consciously ‘staged’ re-enactment of the 1916 Rising, one-hundred previously.

When the 2016 Student Rising extended into a second week, complaints by inconvenienced citizens, combined with pressure from corporations whose businesses had been targeted by the protestors, and EU authorities (distracted by the 2014-18 military conflict in the Middle-East), forced the Irish government to call in the military to end the occupations. Public anger at the harsh treatment meted out to the protestors, combined with increasing public unease at the involvement of Irish troops in the stale-mated conflict in the Middle East, and a health-crisis caused by the influenza epidemic of that year, conspired to create a political crisis which at one stage appeared to threaten the stability of the institutions of the state.

The centre-right government was forced to resign in the summer of 2016. The ‘New Charter’ coalition that came to power following the General Elections in November of that year, placed reform of the education system at the centre of its efforts to revitalise the nation’s social, economic, and political affairs. In his first year in office as Minister for Education, John ‘Harry’ Newman (a key figure in the ‘Irish Indignados’ movement), re-established free fees for third-level students, increased funding to the universities and institutes of technology, and announced that the Irish government was fundamentally opposed to the imposition of managerialist structures and business models on Irish universities. In a series of public lectures on “The Idea of a University” in the Rotunda, Dublin (which like the GPO and the former Charlton cinema on O’Connell street had been purchased by the government to facilitate the re-location of UCD to the city-centre) Minister Newman remarked to audiences that:

Now this is what some great men are very slow to allow; they insist that Education should be confined to some particular and narrow end, and should issue in some definite work, which can be weighed and measured. They argue as if everything, as well as every person, had its price […] But a university training disciplines the intellect for its own sake. It is the education which gives a man or woman a clear and conscious view of his or her own opinions and judgements, and thus helps to raise the intellectual tone of society, facilitate the exercise of political power, and refine the intercourse of private life.

Irish universities rapidly gained a worldwide reputation

The remarkable transformation that occurred in the fortunes of Irish universities following the 2016 elections has been described as a veritable renaissance by historians of the period. Released from the shackles of government micro-management of its expenditures and the requirement to tailor its resources to meet the needs of industry; and inspired by exciting developments which so transfigured the political, social and cultural life of the nation in the aftermath of the 2016 elections, Irish universities rapidly gained a worldwide reputation for cutting-edge research, first-rate scholarship, and a teaching-ethos that made effective use of technological innovations, while also retaining the best student-teacher ratios in Europe.

The number of international students attending Irish universities rocketed between 2016 and 2020, as the country’s ‘university cities’ (Belfast, Cork, Dublin, Galway, Limerick, Maynooth and Waterford) began to attract large numbers of undergraduates and researchers from countries such as France, Germany, the UK, Scotland, Catalonia, Spain, The Netherlands, who were eager to experience for themselves the exhilarating atmosphere that permeated artistic, cultural and political life in Ireland in these years.

As well as helping to fuel the intellectual revival of Irish life, the presence of these students made a very important fiscal contribution to the universities and the national economy as a whole. The vibrant state of higher-level education in Ireland, and the strong support that universities were receiving from the government, resulted in Irish researchers managing to draw down a total of €1.5 billion in funding from the EU Horizon Fund between 2016 and 2020. The re-vitalisation of the Irish universities in this period also attracted increased levels of philanthropic donations; by 2020 endowments made up 20-25% of the annual spend of most Irish universities.

In the context of these developments, the debates that had so animated the 2013-15 period concerning the need for Irish universities to ‘pay their way’ and prioritise industry-led goals and objectives over their traditional education-focused values, became irrelevant. The creativity unleashed by the decision to allow universities pursue goals intrinsic to their own educational objectives resulted in a range of new and unexpected collaborations between industry and education, and helped to produce graduates who were equipped with the kinds of personal and interpersonal skills necessary to thrive in business environments: perseverance, analytical ability, independent thinking, and inquisitiveness.

Dr James Heaney is a lecturer in English and Irish Studies at Carlow College, Carlow.

Read: Irish universities are the worst in the world at attracting business funding

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Dr James Heaney

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