Crisis? What crisis?

At the moment it is the Irish health service that is at the centre of a storm; it usually is at this time of year. The “trolley crisis” leads the news every January just as the Leaving Cert makes headlines every June. Nothing seems to change.

Meanwhile the third level education sector has been “in crisis” for the last five years at least, and many suggest that this “crisis” poses a real and substantial risk to the Irish economy. Maybe it does.

But here’s a thing: while the health service is struggling to deal with a flu outbreak, it is also in the process of building the most expensive children’s hospital in the world. Meanwhile children are having surgeries postponed and chemotherapy sessions cancelled. To misquote Bono, “we’re glorifying the future while the present dries up”.

There are parallels in the higher education sphere. While the institutions constantly plead for more Government funding to deal with rising student numbers and decaying infrastructure, they are, at the same time, embarking on very large investment programs. These programs rarely focus on undergraduate education (other than to build more capacity to increase student numbers) but, instead emphasise new sports facilities, student housing (makes sense) and, especially, innovation districts/hubs. Trinity’s plans for an innovation district in the docklands will apparently require an investment of over a billion euros while UCC and NUIG are in the 100s of millions bracket. UCD seem to be in a constant state of growth.

The emphasis on innovation hubs is an interesting one. No one seems to be stopping and asking if projects of this type are really within the remit of universities and if borrowing money to fund them might have a negative impact on undergraduate facilities. Loans have to be paid off after all.

In the last few years, my own institution, DCU, has invested in many projects but I’m glad to say that a substantial investment has been made in our undergraduate facilities, especially in the broad area of biotechnology. This investment has hugely improved the quality of labs we can deliver and has had a massively positive effect on staff and student morale. Given how rapidly our graduates are being recruited by the big biopharma companies, it is quite obvious that investing in undergraduate education is a sure way to contribute to the Irish economy, even in the short term. People seem to have forgotten that.

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