The IUA have been out in force what with the launch of Ireland’s Future Talent – A Charter for Irish Universities. The campaign started with this letter to the Irish Times. In the letter, the Director General of the IUA (Jim Miley) repeated the oft-stated point that state funding for Ireland’s higher education is the second lowest in the EU. This is true but only if that spend is expressed as a percentage of our notoriously inflated GDP. However, if the spend on higher education is expressed as a percentage of total government expenditure, Ireland’s spend is just below the median value and almost identical to Germany’s.
Later in the letter, Jim Miley argues “If the under-funding of third-level education continues as it has for the last decade, there’s a real risk that the earnings dividend of future graduates will be seriously eroded.” This is a very odd and badly thought-out argument. Countries where the earnings dividend of higher education is high tend not to be ones that we would associate with equity. The top five countries in this regard are Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Costa Rica and Mexico. In contrast, the places where the earnings dividend is lowest tend to have the most equitable societies in the world. Readers will not be surprised to learn, therefore, that the earnings dividend of higher education is lowest in Sweden, Estonia, Norway, Denmark and Finland. It is a pity that the IUA is promoting the idea of an elitist education system where those who cannot afford to go on to third level education are destined to be relatively low earners. Surely, it would be far more desirable to have a system that provided a wide range of pathways to high-earning careers? In fact, this was the case back in the 1980s when many professions were accessible without the need to go to university.
Anyway, what about the charter itself? The first thing that struck me about the charter was that it has a very DCU feel to it. The word “talent” in the title reminds me of our latest strategic plan which has the title “Talent, Discovery and Transformation”.
The second thing that struck me was that it seems odd for all of our universities to buy into a single vision. Surely DCU’s charter, for example, differs from, say, Trinity’s.
The third thing that struck me was that the charter contains no surprises. There are the usual pleas for more state funding coupled with more autonomy, something I would suggest that large swathes of the private sector would laugh at. Worryingly, the universities clearly want to be able to hire superstar academics on super-salaries in order to give themselves a quick boost in the international rankings. This is the Manchester City* approach to education. But wouldn’t it be great if the universities adopted the Leinster Rugby** approach and committed to nurturing the young talent we have through the university and IoT systems?
Apart from that, there are the usual suggestions around more engagement with industry and society, more funding for research and innovation, more international students and better access for disadvantaged and disabled students. There are plenty of random targets and the one that caught my eye was the target of a 30% increase in PhD students. I’m not too sure what problem this target is designed to solve but I suspect it is a target that is designed to serve the interests of the universities themselves. I don’t think business and industry are clamouring for more PhD graduates. In fact the structured PhD concept came into being because it was recognised that the traditional PhD was not serving the needs of business and industry.
There is very little in the document on teaching and learning other that some vague references to “digital learning” (whatever that is) and a “professional development framework” for lecturers.
In terms of university operations, there is a commitment to establishing more “flexible” and “accountable” structures. I don’t really know what these things mean but one thing I do know is that the consistent trend over the last two decades has been to bureaucratise both teaching and research in the universities; so I am sceptical of any stated ambitions to increase flexibility.
All in all, it’s a pretty disappointing document. There’s no real analysis of the role of the universities in Irish society and in the Irish economy. It’s presumed throughout that the universities must grow and climb in the international rankings as ends in themselves. There’s no serious analysis of how the universities might better connect with the secondary school system, the further education sector, and the professions to ensure better access to high-earning and rewarding careers for all segments of society. In an era when everyone talks incessantly about creative thinking, I see none in this document. It’s the same old, same old really.
*Manchester City are the current English Premiership champions. Their success is based on spending over a billion pounds on superstar players from all over the world.
** Leinster rugby are the current European champions and their success is based on nurturing home-grown talent through their academy system.