Higher education and research

Higher education and research was again in the news today.

The latest batch of bad news on the labour market in Waterford seems to have triggered a decision to establish Waterford University. I am not convinced that universities are necessarily good for regional development. Some universities sure have a positive impact, but I don’t think this holds for any university. With the newly build highways, Waterford is closer to Cork and Dublin, taking away some of the would-be benefits of a local centre of learning and research.

Furthermore, Ireland has plenty of universities already. The largest university has 18,000 students (UCD, 2009) — which puts it below average in the Netherlands,  60th in the UK,  38th in Germany, 35th and just above average in France. Ireland has the 8th highest number of universities per capita in the world already. (A new university would not change the latter rank, just push us closer to Norway.) This matters for two reasons. There is a fixed cost in running a university. International rankings are not normalized for size; small universities cannot do well.

The 2010 annual report of Science Foundation Ireland also made the news today. The press release emphasizes collaboration, which has increased with both researchers abroad and companies in Ireland. This is not a measure of success. It may just reflect the changing nature of SFI funding and its increase in size. The annual report itself has more indicators, but is annoyingly glossy for an academic organization. We learn that SFI-funded researchers have published 22% more papers in 2010 than in 2009, but we are not told the number of researchers. We learn that Ireland has gone up 16 places in the citations-per-paper ranking (36th in 2003, 20th in 2010), but for all we know that may be because of the social sciences and humanities (who are not supported by SFI).

The SFI 2010 Census has more numbers. Two things stand out: Few patents, few spin-outs. Emigration numbers are high: 47% for all, 66% for non-Irish (post-doc and below). SFI’s mission is to bolster innovation in Irish manufacturing.

28 replies on “Higher education and research”


You said it all — “few patients” – – but too much patience!

It’s all good propaganda via the paper of record.

The loss of almost 600 jobs is a tragedy as is the loss of 6 that gets no media attention.

Converting institutes into technology universities maybe good politics but a technology university such as ETH Zurich, has no need to worry.

As for SFI, what is the metric of success for this grant-giving quango?

According to Director-General of SFI, John Travers, “SFI’s focus continues to be the establishment of Ireland as a location renowned for the excellence of scientific research. The challenging economic environment which has continued through 2010 and into 2011 has deterred neither industry nor the researchers that SFI funds in order to support the further development of the knowledge economy, in their combined quest of achieving research excellence and realising commercial potential.

In tandem with this alliance of highly-skilled individuals and groups, SFI continues to working closely with Government to help deliver innovation, efficiencies and value for money on a sustained basis.”

No realistic assessment of outcomes whatsoever.

My understanding is that many of the research oriented countries became that because they had successful industries making a developing products. It seems that in Ireland the ‘developing’ angle is pretty underdeveloped (terrible turn of phrase) relative to the research emphasis. But to be fair when academic salaries are so high for professors etc. the incentive to take risks and put the house on the line evaporates. The taxpayer is picking up all the downside for R&D commercialization in Ireland. The upside goes to the VCs and the researchers mainly, with EI getting its bit of the pie as well. Small bespoke tech firms are reminiscent of the economy pictured in Bladerunner – one ‘shop’ does genetically engineered eyes, another skins, etc. Also patents measure very little if they are taken out to protect a core product or process.

Rank 20 for citations but 4 early-stage spin-outs in 2010.

The question is not whether there should be funding or not for science but surely annual public spending of €2.5bn should be more than another welfare programme?

What is the alternative to a spin-out with potential being sold-out by the promoters and VC investors to an American firm before the taxpayer gets any payback for the overall investment in the sector.

The number of ‘collaborations,’ is touted but the taxpayer could be providing 75% of the funding.

After decades of public support for enterprises, we don’t have a clue as to the survival record of firms nor do we have data from longitudinal studies of firms that are successful.

Enterprise policy continues to be dominated by spin with dazzled ministers being unable to separate fact from fiction.

” International rankings are not normalized for size; small universities cannot do well.”

Isn’t this a bit moronic?

League tables and targets can have some perverse effects.

We used to think highly of some universities that were “smal”l. OK I don’t see Waterford getting there, but as a matter of principle small does not necessarily equal crap. Cambridge used to have about 11,000 students, Oxford was similar. Imperial wasn’t too big either and I think Durham and St Andrews were less than half the size of proper universities before the UK government targetted 40% of school leavers to go to “university”.


Maybe SFI should do the right thing and use the slogan “We’re getting there”. Prize of an imaginary Mars bar if you correctly identify the source in less than one second.

@Richard – you beat me to it.

Universities can have regional development benefits, but then both the Border and the Midlands regions have a stronger case for a university i.e. we would need to add three rather than just one. WIT already offers degree and postgraduate qualfications so the question is what is the added value of changing the name and indeed what are the costs.

There is a myth about that the West is and has always been the worst performing region. However, the South-East ranks about the same as the West when it comes to gross value added (GDP). The Border and Midlands do worse. Importantly the South-East has suffered a significant negative trend in terms of its relative position. In terms of unemployment the South-East comes out worst followed by the Midlands, the West and then the Mid-West.

I am not convinced that universities are necessarily good for regional development.

I don’t agree with this view. To repeat comments I have made on another blog.

Universities do more than give people degrees. In many cases, they supply the attached area with graduates and to some extent a population.

The perennial problem with Universities in Ireland is that most of them are in or around Dublin City. The effect of this has been to drain undergraduates from all over the country into that city, resulting in many of them staying there indefinitely. This effect has been well document in the UK for the case of London, but is mitigated by the presence of other universities and university towns elsewhere in that country, and indeed by government policy in some cases.

Ireland meanwhile has only three universities–UCC, NUI Galway, and more recently UL– situated outside the Dublin region, and each is the only University in its attached hinterland. The south east and Waterford City has no University, only WIT, and probably loses a thousand or more young people to Dublin each and every year. The boom in fact probably accelerated this process. A reminder is perhaps needed that Waterford is one of the five cities in Ireland.

The problem is in effect not the lack of Universities in Ireland but rather their geographical distribution. The provinces have effectively subsidised Dublin universities with undergraduate students since time immemorial, at a huge cost to themselves. The Dublin universities may be content with this situation, but the creation of the University of Limerick, and agitation for a University of Waterford shows that the provinces are not.

This is a larger issue than simply the number of universities and goes to the heart of Irelands economic and regional development since about the 1800s. Government policy since the foundation of the state has been to concentrate almost all urban, economic, industrial and demographic development to the greater Dublin region.

The real solution here is to actually move one of(or parts of) UCD, DCU and Trinity down to Waterford. I’m quite serious. There is supposed to be a spatial strategy, and I don’t see why the higher education sector should be exempt.

@ObsessiveMathsFreak – The beneficial impact of a university tends not to extend very far but Ireland is a (very) small country, and the quality of the university has a lot to do with the wider regional impact.

There is obviously a ‘chicken and egg’ problem’ in terms of the supply and demand for graduates. But this is not the full story. In terms of population with a third level degree Waterford ranked 12th in 2006 (using Census data) – not brilliant but also not terrible. Dublin comes out on top, followed by Kildare and Galway. Interestingly Sligo comes 7th.

There is little patenting by Irish organisations and Irish inventors. For example in the year 2010 there were a total of 968 patent applications made worldwide where one or more inventors gave an address in Ireland. The number of actual inventions would be a fraction of that for various reasons.
Of the true inventions, a proportion of these do not actually involve a genuine Irish resident inventor but were made in the US and elsewhere by TNC’s and are assigned to an Irish subsidiary company for tax reasons. Statistically once these and other distortions are screened out one discovers that commercially relevant inventive activity (i.e. worth a patent application) in Ireland is miserably low.

This is one of the key metrics that clarifies the true nature of the way Irish science is funded. It is not and never has been focused on commercial outcomes. Given the focus of the policy (Irish universities) and the key people involved in administering funding at the funding and enterprise agencies (civil servants and Irish postdocs who could not find a research career in Ireland) this policy will not change of itself. Most of those involved have no significant commercial experience and some have no experience of working off the island. There is little understanding of what economically-relevant science/engineering investment looks like, no wish to learn, and no metrics are commissioned to allow objective assessment. The research product is generally published and many of the researchers emigrate, resulting in little more than a transfer from the Irish taxpayer to research companies around the globe, lubricating some administrators and academics en-route.

Ireland has the 8th highest number of universities per capita in the world already.

Actually, the graph says that it has the 8th highest number of universities ranked in the top 500 worldwide per capita. Which is not necessarily a bad thing.

International rankings are not normalized for size; small universities cannot do well.

Don’t the rankings that you linked to try to do precisely that (at least in terms of the size of the countries), and don’t the results somewhat undermine (or at least place in doubt) the second part of your statement?

There is little patenting by Irish organisations and Irish inventors.

Good. Patents have become a con game and protection racket, and an impediment to innovation and insustry. Ireland and Irish universities should stay as far way from that debacle as possible.


“Good. Patents have become a con game and protection racket, and an impediment to innovation and insustry.”

This view is being discussed by the patenting industry and at one level its right. At another level it reflects the fact that many small businesses don’t know how to play the game and exploit patents. And as for the state its understanding is limited to defensive patenting and patents as a crude proxy for value of a venture.
Trolling is an issue I grant you, but there are countermeasures and prophylactic measures that can be taken. Those innovating in high risk sectors e.g. ICT need to know these things.

“Ireland and Irish universities should stay as far way from that debacle as possible.”

Ireland does not make the rules about IP rights. To a large extent US-owned pharma TNC’s do via TRIPS. If Irish companies want to trade in anything more than commoditised products and services they must follow the rules as they are. The racket, if there is one, is the steadfast refusal by the ‘smart economy’ to research and report on patent-grade IP creation in response to state funding.

For the small minority of companies that are not patent naive and see them both as a low cost information resource and a respectable way to earn a living it is possible to grow faster and earn more. A handful of Irish companies already do this, working towards a revenue-positive portfolio of patent assets and a network of cross-licences with their co-opetition, allowing a legal oligopoly in a sector. That is smart and it is the future for tech businesses.

@Richard Tol

Let’s look at the relevant paragraph from your post:

Furthermore, Ireland has plenty of universities already. The largest university has 18,000 students (UCD, 2009) — which puts it below average in the Netherlands, 60th in the UK, 38th in Germany, 35th and just above average in France. Ireland has the 8th highest number of universities per capita in the world already. (A new university would not change the latter rank, just push us closer to Norway.) This matters for two reasons. There is a fixed cost in running a university. International rankings are not normalized for size; small universities cannot do well.

The page you linked to – and which you somehow misread as referring to the number of universities per capita despite the rather clear Top 500 (per capita) (most recent) by country at the top of the page – shows that, per capita, Ireland has more universities in the top 500 than any of the four countries you compare us to in terms of university size. (Although we are behind Norway.) If you have any actual research that measures ranking performance against size, then by all means show us, but we haven’t seen it yet.

No. The Shanghai ranking, the QS ranking, the THE ranking and even the Leiden ranking are increasing in the number of faculty.

I’m sorry, but I’m not really certain what you’re trying to say here.

In addition, if I were being flippant, I’d say Caltech and Princeton seem to do OK for themselves.

@OMF and Richard

I agree with OMF why not close down Trinity and move it to Waterford/Kilkenny. Trinity can never grow because it is on a tiny site stuck in the middle of Dublin City Centre. That would leave DCU in North Dublin,UCD in South Dublin and NUIM on the Western front.

Why the hell is there 3/4 Universities , a Medical School and a myriad of ITs in the Dublin area when the rest of the population particularly those in the South East are told to kick their heels and travel to Dublin/Cork etc . When I see the amount of Taxpayers money shunted to UCD and TCD every year it makes one wonder are there many classes of Taxpayers – those that enjoy spending our taxes and those that have to pay for the spenders.

Mr Quinn could try some Lateral thinking for a change in Education but also it would be nice to see some of the Academics that spend our money come into the real World and live with ordinary people in the Provinces. Cambridge University is based in a very rural part of England and it is ranked the Best University in the World. So why not a TWU – Trinity Waterford University !!!

@OMF: “The real solution here is to actually move one of(or parts of) UCD, DCU and Trinity down to Waterford. I’m quite serious.”

Actually move DIT + DCU. Wexford/Waterford and East Cork are actually a pleasant locations. Mildish winters, sunny weather, nice sandy beaches, good fishing, low transport costs.

Now all you have to do is impose full fees on the residual Dublin universities. That might concentrate minds a little.

Brian Snr.

We should be moving more universities into Dublin – the only internationally competitive city we have. Dublin pays disproportionately more taxes than the rest of the country. Look at the huge drag low population density in the rest of the country is having on the efficiency of Government expenditure. The NCC has stated that Dublin is a key driver of national economic growth and nothing should be done to damage its international competitiveness. The IDA couldn’t force eBay to move to Athlone. For eBay it was either Dublin or some other European city.

Have we any urban economists contributing to this site who could add to this debate – perhaps on a separate thread?

I say this as someone who doesn’t live in Dublin or the Greater Dublin Area but who recognises that a thriving Dublin with at least 2 million people and high class research facilities will be good for the country overall.

I am neither a economist nor unpartisan in this debate, but I am interested in what this blog would make of the demographic argument that is deployed to make a case for investing in upgrading WIT.

The hea stats website indicate that of the 18,000 people from the South East are currently taking an undergrad programme (around 4% of the 460k people of the SE). 12,000 of these left region (around 2.6% leave the region every 3-4 years).

Two leaps- I guess the majority are middle class kids, who get north of 450 CAO points. I further suppose that many do not come back, they work, marry and settle out of the region.

WIT is run at max capacity (costing around €40 mil per annum to educate 6-7k students. DCU is run on close to double that recurring funding for the same number of students. WIT cannot credibly offer more service whilst maintaining minimum acceptable standards for its awards. With additional funding DCU has not been able to grow its numbers. But given the cache of the university title, and similar funding diet to DCU, WIT can grow to UL’s scale (around 12k students/same budget as DCU) and make an enormous impact on the region. These funding numbers come from Dail questions, student numbers from HEA.

Ireland does not have an economy or population to support one world class university. Instead of frittering away the opportunity to have one university of note the provincial universities should be confined to offering first and second year programs with third, fourth and post graduate programs offered by one university in Dublin.

The province of Quebec in Canada addressed this problem by making attendance at technical colleges (CEGEP) a necessary step before attendance at university. This was originally implemented in an attempt to reduce the number of students involved in studies that did not benefit them or society at large. The result is McGill a world class university in Montreal. I was on vacation there in August where I also found out that there is a world class translation institute in Chicoutimi (Saguenay). I also found it interesting that they rolled three towns into one and the Catholic Church is down to 10-15% of what it was in the 1960s. I met two lovely girls from TCD in Tadoussac wearing “No Bearla” sweat shirts who brought me up to date on Ireland’s continuing love affair with a dead language.

It appears to me that Ireland must at some point contemplate change that goes beyond the parish pump and the Dail as the candy shop. The world out there is evolving and the race goes to the brightest and the fastest.

There needs to be a serious backlash against the cult of scale, “world class” and “league tables”. There is no evidence whatsoever that the payback to the economy or to the community justifies anything like the level of obsession and funding invested in this piece of ideology. The primary value, in a narrow economic sense, of universities to the economy is to attract and train the maximum number of STEM students to degree level, in order to provide employees for our many high tech companies. (Although you won’t find many of them in Waterford.) This function could quite easily be performed by the institutes of technology alone, let alone “world class universities”.

World class research is and can be produced by directing that institutes, IoTs and universities, home and abroad, to come together as consortia competing for research funding. PRTLI in Ireland (to some extent) and FP7 in Europe does this. Got a talented research group? Got skype? Doesn’t matter whether you’re in Trinity or WIT, located in Waterford or Dublin. Where we arguably need to scale up is in research, and this can be done very easily. Where we need to maximise student numbers is at the undergraduate level, where a top tier institution in each region guarantees maximum access. Waterford and the south east is an outlier in not having a university. University of Limerick, much closer to other universities than WIT is, has made a massive difference to the local economy in Limerick. To say the existence of a university in a region makes no difference is quite simply naive and wrong.

Those making “scale” arguments, i.e. that “Ireland is only the size of greater Manchester” brigade, would do well to remember that whilst regions of 500K may appear laughably small today, regions of 4.5m may be similarly inconsequential in a few years time. One wonders whether the “centralise, merge or die” attitude so prevalent in the capital these days will extend to abandoning “world class” education completely on this island, in favour of rowing in behind one of the future 150,000 student world class universities across the water in the UK.

The reality of the matter is that Ireland is a small, sparsely populated country. That means we ought to look at what other small, sparsely populated countries are doing, e.g. Wales, Scotland, Finland, Norway, Sweden, New Zealand, etc. Forget about what the UK, Germany and the Netherlands are doing. And as for Dublin being the only real/world class/critical mass/metropolitan/etc. city in Ireland, that’s neither here nor there. A city of 1.1m people is nothing in the grand scheme of things. We need to think small, competing and collaborating ecosystem of institutions, because scale is a game we will lose. With improving infrastructure, it doesn’t really matter (within reason) where FDI or universities are situated.

All Waterford and the south east wants is to be an primary part in the overall educational and employment network, however the system is organised in the future. Right now that means upgrading WIT.

@Norman Wyse
I would like to agree with you, my heart is all for localism but my brain disagrees. Higher learning and research has become increasingly cross disciplinary. The tools at the cutting edge are in the tens of millions. A small example is Hydrogeology which encompasses, Geology, Mining Engineering, Mechanics, Statics, Physics, Chemistry, Mathematics, Fluid Dynamics and a multitude of other disciplines. I see this up close and no country with a population of 4 million is going anywhere unless its focus is razor sharp.

Quebec with a homogeneous population of 6 million (French speaking) and a penchant for walling itself off from the anglo world has made enormous progress in organizing its post secondary institutions to meet the demands placed on them by the progress being made in Asia and elsewhere. Centralize and specialize is the order of the day with little duplication between McGill (bilingual), Laval (French)and Universite a Montreal (largely French).

@Mickey Hickey
“Localism”? No interest in localism at all. But I do happen to believe that a plurality of competing and collaborating institutions is ultimately more productive than a single, large, non-competitive (within the Irish context, thus for national funding), bureaucratic institution — to take an extreme. No problem with interdisciplinarity in this context. In fact, colleges collaborating on large projects can built niche specialities.

Centralisation, as I pointed out, is all very fine, until you realise that with only 4.5m people, Ireland will lose the scale game. No question. China is coming. India is coming. Collaboration is the only hope for scale, collaboration within Ireland and with institutions outside it.

If there is any evidence out there that massive universities consistently outperfom networks of smaller universities, I’d love to see it. Harvard of course has a mere 7,000 undergrads and 21,000 postgrads, slightly larger than NUIG. Harvard is resisting scale at all costs. And yes, I accept that it has massive scale in terms of endowments. But would the US really benefit from merging all the ivy league colleges into one? Does anyone actually believe that would be a good thing? I certainly do not. Merge TCD and UCD and you will, I believe, have something that is less than the some of its parts.

You cannot discount the social, intellectual and economic capital that individually branded and geographically located (and/or sectorally focussed) institutions can generate for the system as a whole. The fact that UCC is in Cork puts the combined weight of every public and private body, and every individual, in Cork behind it. Similarly with other colleges. If universities and IoTs can work together on diverse projects, this capital can be retained, bureaucracy can be minimised (not the total amount of it but the “depth” of it) and effective scale can be achieved. Centralising and merging only moves turf wars under the same roof and removes any notion of competition or collaboration, which is vital, within the sector.

I’m not knocking the Quebec approach, if it’s right for them. But if they are trying to win a scale arms race with the emerging universities of India and Asia, or even with the existing larger or more wealthy institutions, a 6m population is probably not going to cut it. (Although those universities you mention are top universities as is, but will they be after a bout of centralisation?) And anyway, how many undergrads will they lose due to reduced access because it’s a case of “sorry, we don’t do engineering here anymore, try 150km down the road, and by the way, how’s your French?” In all this talk about scale and league tables, we forget about the brass tacks: unearthing the maximum number of STEM students and getting them into high tech jobs. Most IoTs and any university can perform this function, and all the better because there are plenty of colleges, access routes and schemes. Not to be sniffed at.

In any case, what the south east needs is an institution of the same calibre of the universities that is fit for merging, and/or for taking up a particular niche in, for example, a Quebec-style division of labour. I’m sure you’d accept that if such an eventuality is just down the road for Ireland, WIT is currently poorly placed to play an integral and equal part with the 7 universities. Whatever the higher education system looks like in 20 years time, it will still be to some degree distributed (we are a small, well connected island after all), and the south east needs to play an equal role in this system — call it a node in the system. Otherwise you will have a continuation of the current brain drain and diminishing opportunity. We do, after all, pay our taxes like everyone else.

just before I go to bed.
1. there have been discussions in Germany about “focusing” a widespread university landscape
2. there have been preposterous claims of “the Physicist does the city” like bigger is always better, with claims to German data. I did look closer, and found, for Germany, that actually the less than biggest, more like 50 – 500 k cities gave the biggest bang for the buck. That might be different for the US.
3. Ireland with its single focus in Dublin, whereas Berlin in Germany is just a despicable joke, might be interesting to compare with, with data.
Anybody interested ?

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