Because they’re worth it, again

Three pieces in today’s Irish Times relate to the state of higher education in Ireland today. Superficially, they all seem positive: the government is giving the sector more money; a consultant sets out a vision for the sector’s future; and the South East calls for a university. In other words, the univerities, their heads, and the South East, are all asking for something on the grounds that they are worth it.

Look more closely, however, and the three stories betray a malaise at the heart of Irish higher education. They all share the modern assumption that education (and third level education in particular) is an economic commodity, rather than something of value in its own right.

First, Sean Flynn writes about yesterday’s launch of the fourth cycle of the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI). Under this scheme, third-level colleges will submit proposals to the Higher Education Authority (HEA) for €190 million in new research funding. Proposals will be expected to focus on key national priority areas and reflect higher education institutions’ research strategies (such as TCD’s Strategic Plan). In particular, and reflecting the HEA’s policy on graduate education, this cycle of the PRTLI will seek to enhance graduate education through graduate schools. (If undergraduate education is the third level, then graduate education represents the fourth level, the current sacred cow in Irish education policy). In this competitive scheme, essentially universities and ITs will argue that, as institutions, they ought to receive more funding, that they are worth it.

Second, David Duffy, managing director of Prospectus Strategy Consultants, argues that Ireland’s continued economic success requires a clear strategy to improve the quality of the country’s third- and fourth-level education. In particular, he argues that we must
– forge stronger links between enterprise and third-level education,
– develop a culture and reputation of education excellence,
– encourage the development of corporate training and executive education, and
– establish an education promotion agency, along the lines of the British Council to attract staff and students here.
These are all good ideas, but his basic point is that, to be worth it, the sector needs to think not only strategically, but also economically.

Third, and reflecting both the kind of economic thinking underpinning the PRTLI and the strategic thinking underpinning Duffy’s piece, Redmond O’Donoghue, chairman of the governing body of Waterford Institute of Technology, argues the case for a university for the South East, to boost the area’s economy and reverse a brain-drain from the region. Again, the case is that the south east is worth it.

Such financial and strategic developments are greatly to be welcomed, but they all miss an important basic point. Ireland’s expenditure on education is below the OECD average (as Duffy himself acknowledges), in part because of an historically low base, and in part because of cutbacks in the basic block grant between 2002 and 2004 which had a negative impact on the funding of day-to-day activities in the universities. Although competitive funding programmes such as the PRTLI have increased, this does not really compensate for lost block-grant revenue, because such programmes are focussed not on core activities but on specific additions. These programmes have resulted in some very important university research projects, but if these flagship projects are built on underfunded basic infrastructure, they run the risk of coming to resemble Ferraris running on potholed backroads. If, as Duffy writes, our continued economic success requires a clear strategy to improve the quality of our university sector, then – in addition to competitive funding programmes and links with industry – an important element of that strategy has to be the improvement of basic funding. More to the point, even if the sector should focus on national economic goals, it should never lose sight of the fundamental verity that education and research are about much more than that, and valuable in themselves. It is all very well aspiring for a world class fourth level, but it must be built upon the foundations of a properly resourced third level! Because it’s worth it.