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Posted 06 November 2013

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Lip Service to an Ideal

Hugh Brady
President, University College Dublin

November 6th, 2013
The 2013 Sir Robert Menzies Oration on Higher Education

I wish to thank Vice Chancellor Davis and the University of Melbourne community for the invitation to deliver the 2013 Sir Robert Menzies Oration on Higher Education. It is always wonderful to visit the beautiful city of Melbourne and this great centre of learning and scholarship. I don’t need to remind this audience that a special bond exists between Ireland and Australia and nowhere is that bond more tangible than in Melbourne.

What was in the air in 1852?

I invite you to step back in time and imagine the cities of Dublin and Melbourne in 1852. The Ireland of that time was a land permeated by social inequality, religious discrimination and political tension. For the Catholic Bishops university education was to be a central part of the solution. For over two and a half centuries since its foundation in 1592 Trinity College – a then Protestant institution through and through – was the only university in Ireland. In 1845 Sir Robert Peel, in an attempt to appease the Catholic middle class and Protestant dissenters, decided to establish the Queen’s Colleges in Belfast, Cork and Galway which were to be strictly non-denominational. For many Catholic leaders, both ecclesiastical and lay, the cure was worse than the disease. A ‘gigantic scheme of Godless education’ had been created – institutions within which – to make matters worse – students from different religions would be educated alongside each other – a highly toxic spaghetti bowl of faith, morals and values (my words I should stress)!

Peel’s initiative was roundly condemned by the Bishops who, encouraged by Rome, resolved to establish the Catholic University of Ireland. And who better to invite to establish such a university than England’s most famous convert to Catholicism - John Henry Newman. Between May and June in 1852 Newman delivered a series of lectures to the people of Dublin on the value of a university education to the individual and to society – lectures which were eventually published as part of the ‘Discourses’ of The Idea of a University – still regarded by many as one of the classic and most enduring texts on university education. On the 3rd of November 1854 the doors were opened to the first 17 students of the Catholic University of Ireland – UCD’s antecedent institution.

Donal McCartney’s history of University College Dublin, entitled UCD: A National Idea, brilliantly describes the early and difficult days of the Catholic University and the complexity of its founding Rector. In particular, McCartney takes issue with the common assertion, borne out of a superficial acquaintance of The Idea of a University, that Newman saw university education as ‘a sort of non-useful education in the classics and other liberal arts for gentlemen of leisure’.  

In-depth reading of Newman’s work and analysis of his actions, McCartney points out, reveal a very different story. Newman consistently advocated a balance between liberal and utilitarian objectives – stressing that education is both its own end and something carried out to achieve particular pre-defined objectives.

Newman’s university was forward looking from the outset – at the vanguard of academic advancement in Europe. While it included the subjects that had served as the bedrock of a university education for over half a millennium, it also embraced newer disciplines that were to expand the reach of the academy. The chair of classics co-existed with the first chairs of archaeology and Irish history in Ireland, the first chair of English literature in Britain and Ireland, and chairs in emerging disciplines such political and social science, political economy and geography. During his short four year term as Rector he established a medical school, proposed a Faculty of Law and proposed the establishment of ‘a school of useful arts, developing and applying the material resources of Ireland: that is, comprising the professorships of engineering, mining and agriculture’.  For Newman, it was not a choice between liberal and utilitarian - it was always ‘both-and’ and never ‘either-or’.  

Perhaps most importantly, Newman and his backers dared to be different – a topic that I will return to later. Newman’s University was unique among Ireland’s universities in that it was born not of an Act of Parliament or State endowment but of an idea and with the aspiration of creating a ‘flourishing University’ in the capital of a ‘prosperous and hopeful land’.  It can be argued that Newman imagined a University and a nation whose missions and fates were intertwined.  To this day, the importance of this relationship and, indeed, the responsibility that it carries, remain deeply imprinted in UCD’s DNA.

In 1852, on the other side of the world, another great university was being conceived.  In Ireland, as you know, we take credit unashamedly for most major developments in Australian history. It is against this background that I was interested to read of the role of Redmond Barry, a judge of the Victorian Supreme Court - of good Anglo-Irish stock, as an influential advocate for the establishment of a new university in Melbourne. I will judiciously skip over the fact that Barry was a graduate of Trinity and the judge who presided over the trial of one Ned Kelly!

In his budget speech of November 1852, Hugh Childers, the Auditor General and Finance Minister set aside the sum of £ 10,000 to establish the University of Melbourne designed, I note, to be a civilizing influence at a time of rapid settlement and commercial growth during Victoria’s gold rush. I need not remind anybody in this audience that the University was founded in 1853, following receipt of Royal Assent, with Childers as its first Vice Chancellor.

What you may not know is that, while Childers had a somewhat checkered career after leaving Australia, he endeared himself to the Irish. In 1892 the report of the Financial Relations Commission, which he chaired as his last act before leaving Parliament, concluded that Ireland had been over-taxed on a per capita basis by £2-3m annually compared with the rest of the UK – a report much-quoted by Irish nationalists for many years in their quest for independence. Their opponents, of course, argued that the taxes were legitimate and merely reflected the Irish people’s higher than average consumption of taxed commodities such as tea, tobacco and alcohol rather than income tax – a preposterous and unimaginable proposition!  

On a more serious note, Childers’s younger cousin Robert Childers was the father of Erskine Childers, the fourth President of Ireland.

I wonder what Childers or, indeed, the first 16 students who attended classes in 1855 would have made of the University of Melbourne today: one of the world’s top research universities; renowned throughout the world as a leader in pedagogical innovation; an important contributor  to Victoria’s and Australia’s economy and society; and the university that has produced so many of Australia’s Nobel Laureates, Prime Ministers and leaders in all walks of life.

Elbow Room for the Mind

I had the honour of taking up the Presidency of UCD at the start of 2004 - our sesquicentennial year. For UCD and the other Irish universities the economic roller coaster ride that followed – a remarkable cycle of boom, bust and recovery – seemed to condense virtually all of the major issues facing international higher education into one narrow and quite harrowing window. I will share some of these experiences with you later. If Newman’s University has been secular by statute since 1908, the economic events of the past five years were enough to drive many in the institution back to prayer!

It is a testimony to the enduring nature of Newman’s Idea that his educational philosophy seemed as relevant as ever and proved an inspiration to the UCD community as we used the sesquicentennial anniversary to reflect on the University’s contemporary teaching and learning strategy.

In this context, it would be remiss of me not to take this opportunity to compliment Vice Chancellor Davis and his colleagues for daring to be different when they conceived and implemented the change in course structure and curriculum that is now known worldwide as the ‘Melbourne Model’.  Many of the same principles underpinning the Melbourne Model informed UCD’s reflections on its educational philosophy which led to the launch of the UCD Horizons curriculum around the same time.

One of Newman’s phrases which resonated more than any other for me personally is:  ‘Great minds need elbow room, not indeed in the domain of faith, but of thought’. Elbow room for the mind – a wonderful concept that influenced our deliberations and should probably be emblazoned on the foreheads of all attending curriculum development meetings, particularly in the STEM subjects, where there always seems to be relentless pressure to fill courses with more and more content to capture the latest discoveries and technological developments.

The key facets of the UCD Horizons  curriculum - arguably the most fundamental root-and-branch curriculum reform in Irish higher education history - will have a familiar ring to them: embracing the three cycle (bachelors-masters-doctoral) Bologna model; reducing our undergraduate programmes to a limited number of broad entry routes; the introduction of graduate entry pathways to professional programmes; encouraging educational breadth as well as depth; a curriculum infused with research and scholarship; and a major focus on the internationalization of the student experience. But if these were the key facets, the key unwritten principle underpinning all of our deliberations was ‘Elbow Room for the Mind’.

We may not have been as brave as the University of Melbourne in terms of abolishing all other options – and consequently our student protests appear to have been somewhat less intense, at least as judged by the press clippings of the time – however, it is gratifying that, almost 10 years later, our students (like the Melbourne students) are now our greatest advocates and many of the core elements of the reform are now being adopted nationally.

When Philanthropy and Policy Rhyme

Let me return now to the extraordinary experience of managing a research university during one of the most dramatic boom and bust cycles in living memory. I would hope that some elements of this still-unfolding case study are of wider relevance for small and mid-sized countries, such as Australia, whose higher education systems are dominated by so-called ‘public institutions’.

I hope to convince you that Ireland is an interesting example of how the confluence of enlightened national policies, a combination of judicious public and private investments, and receptive and ambitious universities can be a catalyst for rapid enhancement of quality and reputation of an entire university system  while ill-informed policies, on the other hand, formulated hastily or reactively in response to short-term political pressures, have the potential to inflict damage that it may take decades to repair.

First to the Boom!

As has been well documented in the international press, Ireland went through a period of unprecedented economic growth from the mid-1990s until 2007 – christened the ‘Celtic Tiger Economy’ - and then suffered a spectacular crash in 2008 from which Ireland is now showing welcome signs of recovery.

While a major part of the boom was driven by a very large property bubble fuelled by irresponsible lending, lax regulation and a receptive populous, Ireland was also establishing itself as one of Europe’s leading knowledge economies due to a combination of smart government policies in areas such as taxation, the traditional teaching strengths of our higher education system, unprecedented new investment in research and very effective marketing of Ireland as an attractive European base for multinational industries.

A major catalyst for the new investment in research was the arrival of a great friend of Ireland and Australia  – Chuck Feeney – who committed hundreds of millions to build research capacity in our universities on condition that it was matched by Government. A new national programme (the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions) was created where funds were distributed on the basis of international peer review with the key criteria being research excellence, links between research and teaching, the quality of overarching institutional strategic plans, and inter-institutional collaboration.

In parallel with Mr. Feeney’s investment, the Irish Government had embarked on its own Technology Foresight Exercise to imagine the economy of the future and decide on the investment required. This led directly to the establishment of Science Foundation Ireland (somewhat similar to the National Science Foundation, USA) and was quickly followed by additional new investments in 4th level masters and PhD training under the banner Fourth Level Ireland.

The results were quite spectacular. From a virtual standing start, Ireland’s campus infrastructure was transformed, a new cadre of top international researchers was recruited, graduate schools were created, masters and PhD student numbers increased, and publications, citations and rankings surged. These landmark research initiatives were particularly successful in catalyzing the establishment of large multi-disciplinary research programmes – many of them multi-institutional and with substantive industry collaborations.

While it is, of course,  difficult to prove cause-and-effect when it comes to the link between these investments and economic growth, the same period was associated with growth in foreign direct investment, particularly from the US, such that Ireland became one of Europe’s leading hubs in areas such as biopharmaceuticals, ICT, medical devices, financial services  and other globally-traded services. Furthermore, albeit at a slower rate, a new breed of indigenous companies came to the fore built on knowledge and technology and traditional sectors such as agriculture and the food industry were transformed.

The Irish property bubble was ultimately to wreak havoc on the nation, but at least some of the tax revenue that it generated was re-invested with good effect to transform our university system. An open question, perhaps, is whether the same will be said of the tax revenues raised from the Australian mining boom in decades to come – a question that I will return to later.

Behind these glitzy and very welcome announcements of new research investments, however, important fundamentals were being ignored or indeed intentionally eroded.

In 1996, Ireland’s Labour Party, in a coalition Government, suddenly abolished undergraduate tuition fees without significant discussion or debate. Core State funding has been whittled away ever since and the Irish universities are prohibited from charging top-up fees, charges or levies of any sort to cover the full costs of tuition.

While the new research programmes were very generous in terms of direct costs, none came close to covering the full indirect costs of research – putting further pressure on the core budgets of Ireland’s most successful research universities.

Further, in a move that will resonate with Australian higher education practitioners, in 2003 a Government Minister, when needing a major chunk of money for other elements of the education cycle, ‘paused’ some major investments in higher education – effectively top-slicing planned expenditure with the cavalier stroke of a pen – ‘Robbing Peter to pay Paul’!

Since then, the sustainability of Irish higher education has been teetering on the brink and disaster has only been averted so far through growth in income from international students – a familiar story no doubt!

Lessons from a Recession

But what of the challenges and indeed the opportunities posed by a spectacular recession?

It should be said from the outset that, despite a cataclysmic drop in tax revenue, massive unemployment and emigration due to the collapse of the construction sector, property market, tourism and consumer spending, the knowledge and technology-intensive sectors of the Irish economy have proved relatively resilient.

Furthermore, Ireland has relatively quickly brought its public finances under control, recapitalised its banks, re-entered the international bond markets, improved its competitiveness and is now showing the first consistent signs of economic growth. This has been achieved, of course, through austerity and pain, but the Government, to its credit, has made the difficult decisions and these have been, for-the-most-part, accepted by the people.

From the viewpoint of higher education, the past five years have been a time of unprecedented challenge for staff, students and their families and have redefined the relationship between the State and its higher education institutions – not always in a positive manner.

The response of staff across the university sector has been nothing short of heroic. They have accommodated 10% more students despite 10% fewer staff and 20% less funding per student while absorbing cumulative pay cuts of 15% or higher and, in many cases, enduring significant personal hardship. They have, for the most part, through their ingenuity and hard work, managed to protect the quality of our teaching programmes and maintain their research output.

With regard to our students, a somewhat unexpected dividend of the recession was that attendance at lectures, tutorials and practicals has risen significantly. Students appear to be working harder, more engaged, more demanding, and more likely to avail of work placements, student mobility opportunities and internships.

Of particular note has been a shared interest among staff, students and funding agencies in developing innovation, broadly defined, as the third pillar of academic activity – intertwined with teaching and research. This has manifest in diverse ways: increased appetite for courses in innovation beyond, I should stress, the more conventional business school offerings in innovation and entrepreneurship; a wider acceptance of professional or industry doctorates as a legitimate method of doctoral training; adoption of new technologies for blended and on-line learning and research purposes; more engagement with industry; and, interestingly, some imaginative new programmes at the interface of art and science.

After an initial wobble in 2008, the Government has, for its part, held its nerve on the State’s investment in research on condition that there is greater emphasis on university-industry collaboration and industry matching funds.  Ireland’s enterprise agencies have started to leverage university overseas programmes in a manner that would have been unimaginable five years ago. Dormant links between Government departments with our universities have been resurrected for purposes of training, research and policy advice.

In summary, the Irish higher education system has been perturbed as never before and both staff and students have put their shoulders to the wheel in admirable fashion. However, while some of the response from policy makers to the recession has been commendably facilitating, much of it has been constraining, counterproductive and sometimes hostile.

Some in Government and the civil service have seen the crisis as an opportunity to impose a State-directed command-and-control model of university governance that would be more suited to Stalinist Russia.  This agenda has manifested itself in a number of ways - most notably:  State controls over recruitment, promotions and remuneration; performance compacts  with, as yet, unclear performance targets that, if not reached, will result in withholding of up to 10% of already-depleted core funding;  and a controversial draft amendment to Ireland’s 1997 Universities Act, which, if implemented, will give future Ministers of Education the power to interfere in any aspect of the internal operations of a university in a manner unheard of in other OECD countries.

While the incentivisation of university-industry research collaboration has the potential to increase Ireland’s competitiveness for foreign direct investment in the short-term, it has been restricted to a limited number of applied research priority areas with the relative exclusion of blue skies basic science research and scholarship in the humanities and social sciences.

There has been a shift away from international peer-review to a system where career civil servants in enterprise agencies have a significant input into funding decisions. And yes - there has even been a national discourse on silly projects – an area that I know is very close to the heart of the Australian research community.

Finally, at a time when the Ireland’s seven universities have never been more vulnerable financially and there is less State investment available overall, the State has set in motion a process for re-categorizing some of its Institutes of Technology as new technological universities which will inevitably lead to further mission drift and divert much needed funding from the established universities.

Common Themes and Difficult Choices

During a tumultuous decade Ireland has served as a microcosm of the challenges facing higher education globally – in some areas  a shining example of innovation and best practice and in others a victim to the short-termism, policy inconsistencies and political expediency that plague so many national systems.

On the positive side, the Irish academic and policy community can be justifiably proud that they have worked together to achieve participation rates that are amongst the highest in the OECD; to reaffirm the value of a broad education; to adopt a holistic approach to internationalization; to create world-class research capacity from a virtual standing start; to make significant progress towards the mainstreaming of innovation into the mission of its universities; to develop successful new models of university-industry collaboration, and to contribute to the development of one of Europe’s most successful knowledge economies.

On the negative side, Ireland has steadfastly refused to deal with the thorny issue of institutional sustainability; put its longer term research success at risk by failing to balance investment in applied and close-to-industry research with a concomitant investment in blue skies discovery scientific research and scholarship in the humanities and social sciences; constrained the entrepreneurial potential of its institutions through heavy-handed State command-and-control; and studiously avoided the elephant in the room – the issue of institutional diversity.

The latter may be the thorniest issue of them all - but it is a nettle that must be grasped in Ireland and, I suspect, in Australia if some of our universities are to compete on a sustained basis with the world’s elite institutions.

Every dog on the street in Ireland – we have very smart dogs! – realizes that not all of Ireland’s seven universities can be world-class research universities. Yet our national funding model programmes the higher education system for conformity and mediocrity.  

Logically, a diversity of institutions with explicitly different missions is required to cater for such simultaneous demands for high participation rates, job-ready technical training, professional education, PhD training and world-class research performance, and to provide a number of reputational beacons on the international stage. Yet the default option – understandable as it may be politically – is unfortunately almost always ‘one-size-fits-all’ and drives regression of quality towards the mean!

I fully acknowledge the formidable communications challenge for research universities making this case to politicians, taxpayers and other stakeholders. I also acknowledge the challenges for politicians supporting such a policy and the complexities of implementation. However, I would argue that the issue of institutional diversity cannot be shirked. The potential negative consequences of the one-size-fits-all funding model for the performance of top research-intensive universities and, by extension, for the international reputation of entire national higher education systems are too grave.

The Road to Perdition

‘”The road to perdition has ever been accompanied by lip service to an ideal” – words uttered by none other than Albert Einstein in 1936 in Albany, New York on the occasion of the celebration of the tercentenary of higher education in America.  They place in stark relief the disconnect between the rhetoric and policy statements of so many national governments on the one hand and government actions on the other when it comes to diversity and funding of higher education.

It is a disconnect that has plagued Ireland over the past decade and it should be of great concern not just to all stakeholders in Australian higher education but also to the wider international higher education community that the same disconnect appears to be emerging here.

In Australia’s case, it is a disconnect that threatens the very fabric of one of the world’s most successful university systems, established through decades of enlightened educational policies, astute investment, careful stewardship and an unwavering commitment to academic excellence.  

It is a disconnect that is emerging, ironically, at a time when it can be argued that Australia, perhaps more than ever before, needs to hold its nerve and bolster its investment in its research universities to ensure that it can compete with the world’s top knowledge economies and secure the next generation of Australian jobs when its mining boom fades.

To an admirer from afar, it would seem that Ireland and Australia have much in common when it comes to the link between higher education and economic development – and not all of it pretty! Both are relatively small countries whose long-term economic future will be built on their ability to function as successful open knowledge economies competing with and trading with much larger neighbours.  

Yet both are now eroding the fiscal foundations of their higher education systems by progressively cutting core funding to their universities; by rendering them over-dependent on the international student market for revenue; by failing to fund the full indirect costs of research; by occasional ill-judged smash-and-grab raids on the higher education budget; and by avoiding the issue of institutional diversity.

The Australian case is of great concern to the global higher education community because Australia has traditionally been admired as a beacon of balance and best practice, and a model for all small and mid-sized nations.

The reality is that contemporary higher education is a ‘deep pockets’ game where reputations are important, hard-earned and fragile, and the level of investment is one of the most important determinants of performance on the world stage.

The large private universities in the US have long-dominated the world rankings and their top public universities are now rising fast through entrepreneurial management and the support of philanthropy. Hot on their heels are the emerging powerhouses in Asia where governments are more than willing to make the hard decisions regarding institutional diversity and funding that Ireland and Australia find so unpalatable.  And all of these global players have now positioned internationalization at the heart of their institutional strategies.

What is particularly puzzling, at least to this observer, is that higher education is one of Australia’s leading export industries – put simply, why would one choose to gamble with such an important pillar of the economy during one of the most unstable and uncertain periods in world economic history.

What is equally puzzling is that the proposed cuts to Australian higher education are being made, at least in part, to fund other elements of the education cycle – ‘Robbing Peter to pay Paul’. To be the best and to prosper in global terms, an education system needs a continuum of excellence from primary through secondary and onto higher levels of education. We do not serve the value of education if we try to strengthen one link of the value chain by weakening another.

In the history of higher education, governments have rarely, if ever, been single-handedly responsible for the creation of a world-class university system but they certainly have it in their power to inflict serious and long-lasting damage to a system through ill-conceived and hastily implemented policies.

As a fan of so many elements of your higher education system, I sincerely hope that this is one higher education accolade that Australia can avoid!

To Dare to be Different

Most professors and universities pride themselves in seeking to foster independence and originality of thought among their students. However, as captured so astutely by Vice Chancellor Davis in his essay ‘The Australian Idea of a University’, universities themselves are conservative creatures driven along a common path by national policy, the aspiration of students and ‘empire of the mind’ among academics.

In the opening section of this Oration I invited you to step back in time and imagine the Dublin and Melbourne in 1852. I wonder how Newman would view contemporary higher education if he joined us today and what advice he would give us. I imagine (and, indeed, I hope) that he would have dared us to be different and to be bold in addressing the challenges facing our universities, our higher education systems and society.

The University of Melbourne and UCD were founded to be bold and have demonstrated throughout their histories, including their very recent histories, that they are not afraid to be different. They will undoubtedly be challenged to do so more often and with even more conviction over the coming decades given the pace at which knowledge, technology, the higher education marketplace, and society is changing.

In so doing, we can perhaps take even more inspiration and comfort from John Henry Newman who memorably wrote that ‘To live is to change, to be perfect is to have changed often.’

Thank you again for your invitation, your hospitality and, most importantly, your attention.


(Produced by UCD University Relations)


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