OECD report receives warm welcome

17 Sep 2004

The Irish higher education sector has reacted positively to the OECD review of higher education in Ireland. The document was presented yesterday to the Minister for Education and Science, Noel Dempsey TD, and members of the OECD Education Committee during a special session in Dublin Castle.

The report makes a number of key recommendations for both structural and institutional reform as well as addressing funding issues. The study will now be considered by the Minister and Government.

One of the report’s most significant proposals is that a new Tertiary Education Authority be established, which will have policy and funding responsibility for all higher education institutions. This would address the perceived fragmentation within the sector.

The report gives a vote of confidence to the institutes of technology (IoTs), saying that both the IoTs and the universities play equally important roles in higher education. It further recommends that the IoTs be allowed operate with far greater managerial autonomy than before and also that greater collaboration between institutions be encouraged and incentivised through funding mechanisms in research, first degree and postgraduate degree work and in widening access and lifelong learning.

Structural reform in the governance of all higher education institutions is also recommended in the report. In particular, greater transparency is advocated in appointments to governing bodies. Recommendations are made to limit the size of governing bodies, which should have greater external representation and a majority of non-academic members. The report also recommends that posts of university president and institute of technology director should be publicly advertised.

Also addressed are measures to increase participation in higher education from all socio-economic backgrounds, part-time, mature and overseas students.

It is recommended that the Government develop an overarching strategy for the higher education sector. The establishment of a new National Council for Tertiary Education, Research and Innovation, to be chaired by An Taoiseach, is recommended to bring together all relevant government departments with an interest in developing strategy for the sector.

On the funding side, the report controversially calls for an end to the ‘free fees’ policy with regard to third level education and a reinstatement of means-tested fees. The report recognises that there is a need for far greater investment in the sector and that the higher education institutions require significantly increased funding if strategic aspirations for the sector are to be met. Recommendations are made regarding possible options to achieve this latter goal.

The report also looks at the key question of research and innovation and sets a target of a doubling of the number of doctoral students in universities by 2010. It also recommends that public investment in research and development (R&D) be further increased to meet the targets set out in the Lisbon Declaration for 2010. In addition, the institutes of technology should continue to concentrate on applied research and that underpinning research resources should be the subject of specific investment by Enterprise Ireland, and not by the new Tertiary Education Authority, in targeted areas against clear national or regional economic priorities.

Another recommendation is that resources for research and for research infrastructure including capital resources be better coordinated through closer links between the new Tertiary Education Authority and an expanded Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) and with universities being funded on the basis that they are required to accept responsibility for major building refurbishment or building replacement within the recurrent resources available to them.

The issue of technology transfer also receives attention, the recommendation here being that all third level bodies should have business incubator units or other facilities to encourage the exploitation of research through spin out companies and that every effort should be made to involve private sector finance in such ventures.

SFI should be confirmed as the national agency for the funding of basic research and publicly funded R&D in higher education, the report continues, that its powers and responsibilities be extended and that its board structure be amended to reflect its new role.

Commenting on the report, Dr Don Thornhill, Higher Education Authoriyt (HEA) chairman, said: “The thrust of the OECD report is very much in line with the policy positions of the HEA including the emphasis on strategy, improved policy co-ordination and institutional autonomy. I welcome the recommendations calling for increased investment in higher education and research and the importance which the report places on providing a medium-term framework for sustained funding and investment. The recommendation that the funding arrangements should encourage institutions to generate funds from private sources is also in line with our thinking and recommendations.”

Paul Hannigan, chairman of Council of Directors of Institutes of Technology, welcomed the report as a sound basis for the development of a coherent national higher education policy. “The Report clearly recognises that it is of critical importance to achieve a strong sense of collaboration between the organizations in a unitary system, if the potential of higher education is to be fully maximized at regional and national level.”

He added: “The Council of Directors urges an early implementation of the issues concerning autonomy, common quality assurance machinery and incentivisation of greater collaboration between higher education institutions.”

Minister Dempsey said the report would give the Government plenty of “food for thought” and that its findings would be fully considered over the coming weeks. “This report will be an invaluable tool in the development of a unified strategy for this sector into the future,” he said. “I look forward to working constructively with the HEA, leadership in the university and Institute of Technology sectors, as well as the various other agencies and interests in the sector in considering and taking forward the agenda that the OECD have presented.”

By Brian Skelly