OECD review a question of priorities

22 Sep 2004

The long awaited Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) report on Ireland’s third-level education sector was finally published last week amid positive noises from academics, administrators and government officials. The document was presented 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. With a total of 52 recommendations to sift through, however, there will inevitably be differences of opinion on which proposals should be given priority billing and implemented first. A number of senior educationalists outlined what they see as the critical aspects of the document.

Funding is inevitably a core issue addressed by the report and Dr Don Thornhill, chairman of the Higher Education Authority (HEA), wholeheartedly backs the report’s funding proposals. He agrees with the emphasis placed on the stability of funding in the medium-term and feels that, if implemented, the recommendations will help alleviate the funding crisis in the third-level sector.

The much-publicised recommendation to re-institute third-level fees, however, is only one important recommendation in the report, he stresses. “The fees recommendation is undoubtedly important but it runs the risk of distracting attention from other equally important recommendations.”

He also backs the clear message from the report that the fundraising success of individual universities should not be used as an excuse by the Government to cut back on public funding. “This is one recommendation that is hugely powerful psychologically. At the moment, institutions suspect that if they are successful in raising capital privately, this then leads to a cut in their public funding, so they say to themselves: ‘Why bother?'”

Funding aside, Thornhill strongly endorses the strategic position on education taken in the document. “The recommendations that relate to strategy are hugely important. A system that allows institutions high levels of autonomy but enables them to function within a framework of national priorities is most definitely the way forward,” he comments.

He also describes as significant the report’s call for greater clarity of roles between universities and Institutes of Technology (IoT) and within the IoT sector itself. “What we need is a portfolio of institutions doing some of the same things and doing quite a lot of different things and doing them to the top international standard.”

The issue of greater role clarity is also picked up on by Paul Hannigan, chairman of the Council of Directors of the IoTs. He believes the report strengthens the case for greater autonomy for the IoTs. “At the moment any decisions taken within the IoTs have to be referred back to the Department of Education and Science, so it makes long-term planning very difficult. What we are really happy about is that the report recognises that we are being micromanaged by the Department. We hope that any proposals for changes there happen as quickly as possible.”

Hannigan adds that the IoTs also favour the creation of the proposed Tertiary Education Authority (TAA) and the fact that the IoTs would be getting the same level of recognition as the universities within that authority. In other words, the IoTs hope that the TAA will provide them with the route to independence they have long been calling for. He also favours the proposal that says that incentives are needed to boost collaboration levels between third level institutes. Without this, there is very little prospect of partnerships developing, he feels.

Hannigan hopes, too, that the Government will take up the proposal stating that full and part-time courses should be treated equally in terms of State support. Currently, part-time courses run by the IoTs have to be self-funded.

Since he became president of National University of Ireland, Maynooth in the summer, Professor John Hughes has made it clear that he intends to focus on developing the university’s technical and science credentials. It is not surprising, therefore, that the proposals catching his eye are those that fuel that aspiration. He welcomes the report’s call for greater public investment in research and development and is delighted with the proposal to double the number of PhD students by 2010.

“If the Government were to put money into doctoral students this is one area that we could really make a big change in,” he remarks. “Compared to other countries we have a low percentage of PhD students and a lot of it has to do with funding.”

Hughes also backs the proposals that all higher education institutes should have associated business incubator units and that they should market themselves better internationally so as to attract more overseas students.

Like Thornhill, Hughes welcomes the greater degree of autonomy given to universities to manage their own affairs and to, for example, be able to build up their own reserves to have money for strategic investments rather than go cap-in-hand to government year after year. “If we are going to have world-class universities, it is absolutely vital that we can set aside money that we can invest in strategic priorities,” he told siliconrepublic.com.

For Conor O’Carroll, head of research at the Conference of Heads of Irish Universities, the OECD report carries one strong message for central government: more state funding will be needed if Ireland’s ambitions for the sector are to be realised. He feels the report is also right to highlight the need for third-level institutions to manage themselves properly and develop long-term development strategies.

He concludes, however, that the No 1 priority should be that the Government act on the report as swiftly as possible. “There are many reports that have gone to government and not been acted upon. We’d like to see an implementation group set up to deal with all these recommendations as soon as possible.”

By Brian Skelly

The OECD review calls for greater funding for the third-level sector