Research facilities could ‘bankrupt universities’


29 Jul 2004

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The blitz of new research facilities appearing on campuses all over the country thanks to lavish Government funding could bankrupt Irish universities, the head of one of Ireland’s top universities has warned.

In an interview with siliconrepublic.com, Professor John Hughes, president of NUI Maynooth, which itself has benefited substantially from Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) funding in recent years, expressed concern that research buildings could become costly white elephants unless the host universities came up with sustainable business plans for them.

“The SFI and PRTLI [Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions] have done wonders in terms of building fantastic new facilities … but all that has done is build up the infrastructure; it’s not taken care of longer term sustainability.”

He added: “It’s the universities that are having to look at the sustainability issue – how we are going to sustain these centres of excellence beyond the funding period. There’s a bit of a time-bomb there. A huge investment is going into universities to build up these institutes and bring in world-class researchers but not enough attention is being paid to how you sustain them in the longer term and ensure that these buildings don’t end up bankrupting the universities.”

Hughes, who took up his position as president of NUI Maynooth last month, is a former pro-vice-chancellor for research at the University of Ulster where he is credited with attracting substantial funding for new infrastructure under the UK government’s Spur programme.

“For every one of the projects, we did detailed, 10-year business plans to ensure that these centres would not be a burden on the University,” he explained, adding that a similar approach had been taken by NUI Maynooth in relation to its SFI-funded facilities to ensure that the facilities could sustain themselves beyond the funding period.

Hughes’ concerns about sustainability were underlined by new research from the Higher Education Authority published earlier this week. While praising the PRTLI as a “remarkable endeavour”, the study, conducted by a high-level independent commission, highlighted the sustainability of PRTLI-funded centres as a particular area for concern.

The managements of some but not all centres were found to have a naïve view of funding and financial planning and seemed to be entirely dependent on further PRTLI funding for survival. The study recommended the introduction of business planning for all newly established PRTLI centres and that it be made a requirement for all future funding applications under PRTLI.

Hughes also called on the Government to take a long-term view of its investment in science. He said that leading international researchers would not remain in the country unless there was a long-term strategy for research.

A full-length interview with Professor Hughes will appear on siliconrepublic.com tomorrow.

By Brian Skelly