Wednesday, 12 October 2011
Dáil Éireann Debate
Deputy Stephen Donnelly: My colleague, Deputy Shane Ross, is unable to be in the Chamber for this debate. We are all aware of the serious problems — arguably amounting to a crisis — facing the education sector at both post-primary and third level. I am interested to hear the Government’s views, plans or ideas on what can be done to radically improve the performance and educational outcomes at secondary and tertiary levels.
The PISA report issued at the end of last year showed that Ireland has had the largest fall in educational standards in the OECD in a decade. Last week The Times higher education world university rankings included bad news for our universities. None of the ranking systems is perfect, but The Times process is seen by many as one of the best, if not the best. It showed Trinity College Dublin falling from position 76 to 117; UCD falling from 94 to 159; UCC and NUI Galway falling out of the top 300; and DCU and the DIT falling out of the top 400. We have also had various reports and statements from senior business people in Ireland, including senior management in large multinationals, expressing the view that Irish graduates are not faring well by comparison with international peers. This is of great concern to us all.
Part of the reason for the decline in performance at third level is that increased student numbers have coincided with decreased funding. Third level budgets have been reduced by up to 9% in the last three years and there have been staff reductions of 6%. At the same time, first year enrolments are up 15% since 2008, with a projected 30% increase in student numbers in the next decade. The Hunt report suggested that an additional €500 million would be needed to plug the gap in funding by 2020. That is a Herculean task in the current context. Also, there has been a report that the Higher Education Authority will state next month that our higher education system will be unable to compete internationally or deal with that projected 30% increase in student numbers without a quantum leap in funding. That is worrying for everybody.
There are some actions we can take to bring about a major change, and we need a serious change. We are not looking for a marginal change. We need to take a leap and I would like to see the Government set an ambitious target of, say, having two universities in the top 40 within five years. I do not know what the right target is but it should very ambitious.
We must emphasise teaching. Conversations I have had with academics in some of our universities have indicated that in terms of career advancement teaching is not taken seriously, which is huge problem, and the level of training for academic staff to become outstanding teachers does not exist. We must hold academic staff more accountable. The students must be able to hold them accountable. The management within the universities does and, ultimately, the Government through the Higher Education Authority.
The Government could play a great role in helping the universities to fund-raise. Some of the universities that do very well in the United States, for example, have extremely sophisticated fund-raising mechanisms in place for their alumni. As an alumnus of an Irish university I do not see that happening. If the fees must increase I would like to see the Government provide grants along the lines of the United Kingdom model whereby a very low or zero interest grant is made which the graduates only pays back when their salary reaches a certain amount.
The professional management within the universities must be given the freedom and the control to motivate their staff, find the best staff, pay what is required to get the best staff and then hold that staff accountable to ensure change. I am interested to hear the Government’s views on this issue.
Minister of State at the Department of Education and Skills (Deputy Ciarán Cannon): As Deputy Donnelly points out, the issue of rankings has been a hot topic in recent weeks as both The Times and the QS rankings have been published. Ranking systems in general must be interpreted with a certain degree of caution as criteria differences or even slight changes in the weighting given to a particular criterion between one set of rankings and another can have material differences on outcomes on different league tables. For example, Cambridge University came out top of the QS rankings while Caltech tops The Times latest higher education rankings.
This is evident when we examine the relative positions of Irish universities in these two rankings. Trinity College Dublin, for example, sits at No. 65 in the QS rankings but at 117 in The Times rankings. These anomalies generate significant debate around the relative importance attached to rankings criteria and on their capacity to fully capture the quality of what is on offer in a higher education institution. Notwithstanding these reservations, it is recognised that league tables are referenced by international investors, employers and students as a marker of quality across systems and, as such, they cannot be ignored. We can continue to draw some encouragement from the fact that two institutions in Ireland are still in The Times top 200 higher education ranked institutions and four Irish institutions were in the recently published top 300 QS ranked universities, out of some 15,000 universities worldwide.
There is naturally a focus on the fall in the ranking positions of Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin on The Times latest HE table, notwithstanding their continuing strong showings which places them in the top 1% of institutions worldwide. It must be recognised that efficiency improvements across Irish higher education institutions have been a necessary part of their response to the changed economic climate. In this regard, staffing reductions have been achieved simultaneously to increases in student numbers. These efficiency gains have been delivered for the benefit of Irish students and taxpayers. It is acknowledged they also have a related impact on the ratings of Irish institutions based on The Times HE ranking criteria, given that those criteria include direct input measures of staff student ratios.
Even in a climate of managing public service numbers and costs, it is important to emphasise that the operation of necessary staffing restrictions in the higher education sector has been implemented in an exceptional manner that maximises the latitude of institutions to fill front-line posts and maintains their freedom to fill externally funded and revenue generating posts. While some higher education systems have invested heavily in elite institutions and adopted a policy of differentiated support for different tiers of institutions, our focus is on sustaining and advancing performance across the system.
In this regard, we can draw a degree of encouragement from the overall performance of the Irish system on The Times latest HE system performance tables which place Ireland firmly in the world’s top 20. We are ranked 17th overall and are ranked 6th in the world relative to our GDP. It is also encouraging to note that in separate international measures of system performance, the Irish higher education system ranked first out of 28 countries in terms of the way international employers rate our graduates for employability. We also ranked highly for the efficiency of our system.
I am anxious to move the debate around the performance of our higher education system on to a more outcome focused space. The overall quality of the graduates we produce and the responsiveness of our institutions to a range of external demands is what we must concentrate on. The strategy we are now embarking on for the development and reform of higher education aims to enhance autonomy, innovation, accountability — to which the Deputy referred — and performance across the system. It is an important agenda and I thank Deputy Donnelly for raising it today.
Deputy Stephen Donnelly: With respect, most of what I just heard from the Minister of State was a defence of the Irish third level system such as that we are in the top 1% worldwide. Is that the mindset when we have had this extraordinarily bad news in terms of international rankings in our secondary schools and our universities? I am worried to hear a Government which has just come into office and which does not have to defend anything because it did not run the system that got us into this position say that broadly we are okay, we are in the top 1% and we still have two institutions in the top 200. That does not ease my concerns. I am not hearing any vision, ambition or acceptance that this is an incredibly difficult and dangerous situation and that we must start to take bold moves.
There was a generic statement about autonomy and performance but I did not hear a single idea. I did not hear the Minister of State say that we are in big trouble, we have no money and student numbers are rising. Nor did I hear him outline the great initiatives the Government intends to undertake and that have been done in Oxford, Cambridge or some of the Ivy League colleges in the United States. If I was the chief executive of one of the large multinational companies here I would not take any solace from what I have heard.
Does the Minister of State accept that the situation is very serious? Does he also accept that we need a step change and that we must set a bold challenge for our universities? Can he outline some of the ideas he believes might start to get us to that position in the next 12 to 24 months?
Deputy Ciarán Cannon: I would not go as far as to describe it as a difficult and dangerous situation. The Deputy referred to the success in the international rankings of the Ivy League colleges in the United States in particular. One has to conclude that is because they are incredibly well funded through the alumni system, as the Deputy mentioned, and that is an area we must examine. I was speaking to two or three members of staff from one of our universities over the weekend and they suggested that is something on which we must seriously focus and that we did not genuinely tap into that source of funding in the past. I will take on board the Deputy’s suggestion.
I would argue that the Ivy League colleges are incredibly elitist. As far as I am aware the fees associated with them are particularly expensive and only a certain sector of the population in the US can gain access to those colleges.
Deputy Ciarán Cannon: What we are trying to do here is provide for a high level of outcome across the third level sector and in further education in particular at a time when we have limited resources. As the system expands in coming years, which it will because the numbers entering third level are thankfully increasing, it is important that we maintain the focus on high quality outcomes. That will require some difficult decisions and the need for innovative and lateral thinking also. I assure the Deputy that this Government is more than capable of engaging in that kind of thinking but at all times we must focus on equity of access and the quality of outcomes.
We have a very valuable brand when it comes to international education. I concede that university league tables are used by some governments when assessing to which countries it should send their students. At the same time I recall meeting a business man in Singapore during that visit who said that the high skills levels that all Irish students have, irrespective of their background discipline, in communication, decision making and management makes them highly employable. We are providing a high quality of education across the whole system but I concede that we face challenges that need to be addressed by engaging in lateral thinking that the Deputies suggested.
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