HEA calls for ringfenced R&D fund to be established

2 Feb 2004

The Government should appoint a Cabinet Committee for Research and Development (R&D) and inaugurate a dedicated fund, established in law, for the medium term funding of R&D through the state agencies involved in education, the Higher Education Authority (HEA) has proposed.

In a submission to the OECD, which is reviewing the Irish higher education sector, the HEA argues that higher education institutions are a critical part of national research strategy and that the State needs to take a strategic approach to funding. “The one-year pause in the PRTLI [Programme for Research in Third Level Funding] funding in 2003 demonstrated the dangers for the research agenda when Ministers have to balance short term funding pressures against the long term need for sustained investment in research…”

The HEA also stated its belief that “flexibility” and “innovation” are some of the key requirements of institutions in the future, even to the extent of allowing some to become private not-for-profit institutions along the lines of leading research-based institutions in the US. The Authority added that third-level colleges should generally be encouraged to seek private funding and that ways should be explored for graduates to contribute to the cost of their third-level education.

According to Dr Don Thornhill, chairman of the HEA, higher education would continue to have a role in helping students develop to their full potential and in the pursuit of knowledge for its own sake, but increasingly it would also seek to achieve important public policy objectives. “There must be change in structures, management, institutional autonomy and finance if the sector is to fulfil the complex role and meet the many demands of society today and into the future,” he said.

The HEA’s vision is that the government should define the strategic public policy objectives that it requires from the higher education sector. Institutions should achieve national goals in return for their funding and a failure to do so would have funding consequences.

“The HEA’s proposals, through identification of high level goals, the creation of a new funding framework and enhanced empowerment of the institutions will create the conditions for a competitive, effective and accountable system,” said Thornhill.

The HEA also argued for: smaller governing bodies with more members from outside the institutions; a reformed HEA itself with the funding role separated from the advisory role and to be carried out by a small number of people who are not members of staff or of governing bodies of the institutions; and strong quality assurance measures, especially in the areas of teaching and research.

By Brian Skelly