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Posted: 20 March 2008

We must invest now in our universities or pay later

Funding for universities has fallen 30 per cent in the past decade. A crisis looms, argue Dr Hugh Brady, President of University College Dublin, and Dr John Hegarty, Provost of Trinity College Dublin.


The Irish Times – Opinion, Tuesday 18 March 2008


Children entering primary school this year will be eligible for third-level education in 2022. Decisions made now affect not just today's students but our younger children's futures too.

The growth in the numbers of students progressing to third-level education is one of the great success stories of modern Ireland. In two decades from the mid-1980s, the proportion of school leavers going to college has virtually doubled. More recently, we have seen an equally significant expansion in the postgraduate population, such that we now have more than 60,000 undergraduates and more than 15,000 postgraduates attending full-time courses in our seven universities alone.

University research and scholarship has expanded dramatically in the last 10 years, in line with government policy. This is reflected in tangible outputs from the universities in the form of publications, collaborations with industry and, most importantly, a new generation of Masters and Doctoral graduates who will lead the next phase of Ireland's development. Largely as a result of investments in research, the performance of our universities in the international rankings is on the up. Growth in access to university education has been accompanied by a quiet revolution in the shape and structure of both course offerings and teaching itself.

Within our two institutions, and throughout the sector, small academic departments have been replaced by a school-based structure which groups related fields of study together and promotes collaboration and interdisciplinarity. Students have greater choice over what and when they study. Modern management systems have been adopted to support these innovations and the more efficient use of resources.
Our success is reflected in very positive external evaluations of the Irish university system.

These achievements should rightly be celebrated. Our universities have shown that they are willing and capable of responding to national needs, of innovating and substantially increasing places.

But what of the quality of the educational experience awaiting our students? In all developed countries the quality of university education is seen as a key success factor in the face of intense global competition.

But quality is about more than just numbers. It is equally about developing the full potential of each student. It is about educating students who are as informed and imaginative as the best in any country; students who are equipped to engage in and lead the development of a vibrant, creative and prosperous society.

In Ireland there is no shortage of rhetoric about the knowledge society and our aspiration to be "world class". The reality, unfortunately, falls well short of the rhetoric. By most indicators our universities are significantly constrained by comparison with leading international institutions.

We are not talking here of the elite US Ivy League colleges, but of universities in countries such as Denmark, Switzerland and Scotland. Two relevant points of comparison are student/staff ratios (three to four times better than the Irish average) and operating budgets (between two and three times those available here).

Of even more concern is that, rather than closing the gap with these leading institutions, we are allowing it to widen by progressively eroding funding for core teaching.

On a per student basis, core funding has been reduced by one-third since 1995 in real terms. In addition, the maintenance and upgrading of the physical infrastructure for third-level teaching has virtually ground to a halt through lack of funding.

A visit to any university campus will show a stark contrast between the newer research buildings and undergraduate teaching facilities which would look strikingly familiar to those of us who attended college in the 1960s or 1970s. All of this is unsustainable if there is a real objective to be world class.
The contrast is notable because investment in research shows what can be done through enlightened policies, diligently pursued. The solution to the current difficulties facing the universities is not, as some have suggested, to backpedal on research.

The generation of new ideas and knowledge through research, and the enrichment of the learning experience by this knowledge, are at the very heart of a world-class university experience. Any vision of our universities which did not encompass excellence in research and teaching - and the fusion of the two - would be threadbare indeed.

And yet the circumstances which we face daily in our universities call into question whether we as a society really appreciate this. Virtually every recent review of the third-level sector has concluded that there is a major funding deficit by comparison with relevant international competitors.

As university leaders intent on delivering both quality and quantity in the face of intense international competition, we must ask the question: can we as a society agree that there is a funding deficit at third level that needs to be addressed urgently in the national interest? If we all agree on this, the debate on finding a solution can then begin. What we cannot afford to do as a nation is collectively to bury our heads in the sand.

The future of our economy and society cannot rest on unsustainable levels of construction activity or personal consumption. Education is the key to our future and investment in the creativity, skills and talent of our people will always pay dividends. The difference today is that our recent economic success has irrevocably raised the bar in terms of the standards we need to achieve, the global benchmarks we must match and the level of investment required to do so.
We fully support the intention of the Minister for Education and Science to develop a new, long-term strategy for higher education. It is urgently needed. The strategy process, however, must not be used to shirk the immediate funding problem.

Investment in education is not a tap which can be turned on or off as circumstances require without deep and long-term impact. Failure to invest now will place an entire generation of students and the future of this country at a serious disadvantage.

To gamble with our future in this way is, simply, wrong.


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We must invest now in our universities or pay later