Higher education policy in Ireland: achievements and challenges

ESRI logo, via the ESRI websiteI attended the Economic and Social Research Institute (ESRI) Higher Education Policy Conference yesterday on the topic “Higher Education Policy: Evidence from Ireland and Europe”. In the first session, Dr Selina McCoy of the ESRI spoke on “Higher education research in Ireland: where are we now?” and Muiris O’Connor of the Higher Education (HEA) spoke on “Higher education policy in Ireland: achievements and challenges”. In the second session, Professor David Raffe, Director of the Centre for Educational Sociology in the University of Edinburgh spoke on “Higher education policies across the UK since devolution” and Research Professor Liv Anne Støren of the Norwegian Institute for Studies in Innovation, Research and Education, Oslo spoke on “New trends in higher education in Norway – Are traditional male students ousted by female working class students and immigrant students?”. It was a fascinating series of presentations. Muiris O’Connor’s paper was an excellent survey of the evolution and present state of the Irish higher education sector. David Raffe’s paper put the higher education policy issues into context. Selina McCoy examined the very important specific issue of access to higher education in Ireland, whilst Live Anne Støren provided a comparative perspective on that issue. In this post, I’ll summarize what Muiris O’Connor had to say, and I’ll return to the other presentations tomorrow.

For Muiris O’Connor, the main achievement in Irish higher education policy is the participation rate. Over the last 50 years or so, after a late start – the free second level education scheme was introduced in 1967, about 25 years after the rest of Europe – there has been a rapid expansion of the third level sector and a rapid catch-up to international levels. Ireland is above the OECD average for 25-34 year-olds’ educational attainment in second and third level education. Although Ireland is not quite at OECD levels for PhDs, policy in recent years has been to boost that figure. On the other hand, Ireland is a long way from the OECD average for life-long learning rates. Moreover inequalities at the point of entry to higher education are still severe; in particular, there is a serious drop in participation by those just above the grant eligibility threshold.

More generally, Irish state spending per student is well below international references, but this does not necessarily mean that Ireland is more efficient, because – at least at second level – of the huge historical contributions made by religious orders and the more recent contributions made by parents. At third level, there is a very heavy reliance on public investment; indeed, between 1995 and 2005, private investment actually fell as a proportion of the overall amount of investment. Furthermore, since salaries form a higher proportion of of recurrent expenditure than is the case elsewhere, there is proportionately less for money for learning resources, materials, support, information technology investment, lecture theatres, and so on. For example in 2005, 5% of Irish higher education investment went on capital expenditure, as compared with an OECD average of over 10%.

Finally, there are financial troubles ahead, and people with the lowest levels of educational attainment are being hit hardest, but the policy environment is very supportive of developments in education. Over the next 20 years, it will be necessary to double the capacity of Irish higher education. However, it will not be possible simply to double the current position; instead, a major transformation will be required. Of course, economic efficiencies will be necessary. However, the fundamental challenges are not financial but educational: the higher education sector will have to address new modes of teaching and learning; it will have to accommodate whole new portions of population with diversity of skills, interests and talents; it will have to think carefully about about the skills imparted to students; and resources will have to be targeted carefully.

He concluded that “any nostalgia for a golden age of education is misplaced … we have yet to achieve it”, but he was confident that we would.