Higher education reform

The HEA has published its plans for reforming higher education in Ireland. A high level summary is here. There are two more substantive documents (here and here) that partly overlap. There are two core ideas. First, “technological universities” are introduced. Presumably, these will replace the “institutes of technology”. This is to large degree a matter of relabelling. If this satisfies the demands to have a university in every county then so be it. Ireland would follow the international trend to call each and any 3rd level education entity a “university”. Besides, some (many?) of the ITs already grant PhDs and are thus universities in all but name.

The second idea is more controversial. The HEA wants consolidation, through associations, clusters and mergers. Indeed, technological universities will come from a “consolidation of two or more institutions”. On the one hand, it is high time to rationalize the bewildering number of institutions in higher education. I have argued that there too many, small economic departments. Similarly, Irish business schools are too small to credibly support a broad curriculum. There is a fixed cost to running a department, and small department spent a disproportionate amount of time on administration.

On the other hand, scale for scale’s sake is silly. The HEA is not particularly clear about what research and teaching should (not) be consolidated and why.

I would argue that, for research, 2-3 centres per subdiscipline is plenty. For teaching, 3-4 locations for a bachelor’s, and 2-3 for master’s and PhD is enough — per discipline. For those activities, quality beats location. I’d rather talk to / be taught by a good researcher / professor than the one next door. Silicon Valley is not because it is close to any old university, but because it is close to Stanford. For evening and weekend classes, and more vocational training, you do want close ties to local businesses and therefore a denser network of locations.

UPDATE: The Independent reports on the race to become the first Technological University.

The Examiner reports that the president of Cork IT thinks that TU are too university-like. Cork IT is, I presume, free to remain an Institute of Technology. As it would be one of few ITs, it would be free to re-define the IT concept in Dr Murphy’s image.

The Examiner also notes that “distance from home is a major factor in third level participation”. I would argue that people should be prepared to travel for a quality education.

27 replies on “Higher education reform”

and while we are at it …..

why not abolish departmental disciplinary silos …. in business, economics, industrial/production engineering, ict, and other related social sciences ….

Life is inter-disciplinary …. hence, a few heavyweight inter-disciplinary colleges would not go astray …. and it would be a great idea to actually provide a broad education, in Oul Newman’s sense, to all those lost zombie freshers in severe psychological withdrawal from the ‘murder machine’ that corresponds to the so-called ‘points race’ ….

David, although economics is more inter-disciplinary now than before. it is still a minority taste & there is no one obvious discipline to merge with. And who would want to merge with us anyway? So shot-gun weddings like this would not be successful. I think you achieve a broader education within the existing structures.
On Richard’s point about being taught by a good professor over a near one: while I agree, I suspect many don’t. Many students probably don’t know or care what a good professor is [if that means academically good]; why should it matter to them that Professor Bloggs has 10 papers in the AER?


Philosophy of science, psychology, political science (power – use and abuse especially), organisation science, (others) imho would enhance ‘mainstream’ economics especially in terms of ‘realist’ policy ….. and perhaps compensate for some of its ontological aporia …

course you could write off gaining tenure in US depts, and publications in their 5* neo-positivist journals … but if it assisted in building a ‘real’ society here – who cares?

Having studied various subjects at university, I would say that a good research professor is not necessarily a good teaching professor. I’ve had the impression with some lecturers, that they wanted to get in and out as quickly as possible and back to the research and were not interested in the students. But seeing as there’s many professors here I’m open to correction.

Perhaps having some sort of system where the reseachers can mainly concentrate on teaching and those who enjoy teaching can focus more on teaching would be an idea.

I agree with with Richard about there been too many ITs etc in the country, unfortunately the likes of Jackie Healey Rae won’t have it.

David: the trouble is that merging ALL of those folks together would be a disaster. You need some sub-structure academically and disciplines, even if they are very 19th/20th century, are probably the best way. As for: who cares about 5* journals? Eh, those who don’t have tenure for a start. There is a lot of guff about encouraging inter-disciplinary work but (as one who has done a bit) really no one wants to pay for it: grants, appointments & promotions are decided on a disciplinary basis [in some countries more than others].
Richard: Agree with that. Though there may be a veil of ignorance: if I don’t know how good the professors are, why not shop local ? Its cheaper.

Kevin: I’m not talking about ‘merging’ – but cooperative critical dialogue …. and different perspectives on a ‘problem’ …[ some Danes are quite good at this]. and you point to the crux – noone wants to pay for it … yet most real-world problems ARE Inter-Disciplinary … ergo, in terms of academic research and thinking relevant to real problem solving and effective local policy design and implementation – [all this guff about evidence based policy] the ‘overly individualized’ Irish Uni sector is unfit for purpose in this broader societal remit … we get good bits but they are not joined up or synthesised with respect to a broader real perspective [examples too numerous to mention] & ESRI has come in for a bit of stick in this area recently as well ….

I’ll believe in Third Level reform when Third Level institutions begin publishing figures on the number and cost of cases of wine consumed in a year, dinners for the great and the good, taxis, honorariums, first class travel, fancy gadgets, iPhones for the staff, etc. If reform is needed, follow the money.

What is striking at this time of crisis is how little evidence of vision has come from the universities themselves.

As a large consumer of public funds, given the underlying Irish culture, I wouldn’t trust them with prudently using additional funds whether it came directly from the public purse or via student fees.

There is reason to worry about the obsession with being ‘world class’ which is a dubious route to being among Europe’s best run economies with low unemployment.

“The abolition of student fees was one of the worst decisions made in Ireland. It is threatening our world wide competitiveness. The fabric of third level (education) is being eroded,” Ciarán Ó’ hÓgartaigh, the new dean of the Smurfit Business School told the FT last December.

Finland spends about the same as Ireland on higher education, its paybill is lower, there are no fees and it’s hardly a basket case; “threatening our world wide competitiveness,” — what baloney!

Tom Begley the outgoing dean in a newspaper interview in July, ridiculed the quality of Irish students, blaming the school exam system – the so-called Leaving Cert – that, he said, “should be taken out into a field and blown up”.

“We need to figure it out in a way that doesn’t victimise other business schools. But if you begin to invest more resources in your top school, it will develop top-20 world-class capabilities,” he added.

Top-20 world-class capabilities?: a good passport for a job on Wall Street?

The one known known is that significant education reform will not happen in Irish education. The Croke Park dance of the seven veils will be on a respirator and some incremental changes will certtainly require a new ‘process’ taht will go on and on….

On innovation research, in March 2009 TCD and UCD announced an ‘innovation corridor’ which would create 30,000 jobs:

You can bet that the following wasn’t written by someone who had the experience of hustling for sales on a wet Monday morning:

The Alliance envisages building a world-class enterprise corridor between UCD and TCD that will be home for up to 300 new enterprises with advanced technology centres to support indigenous industry. It will be a prototype for a national ecosystem to establish Ireland as an international hub for innovation. It will be similar in concept to the IFSC but focused on the creation and scaling-up of indigenous knowledge and technology-intensive enterprises and the attraction of multinational employers that will become the cornerstone for the knowledge economy.

There they go again: ‘world-class’ – – only if we could achieve even bog-standard in some endeavours?

The small detail in all this is the most important – – the market.

But why risk being confused with reality?

If you would move all the good scholars in Ireland to TCD (which has global brand recognition), then you would create a research university that would sit comfortably in the global top 50. This would attract bright people and bring prestige.

The other institutes of higher education could then focus on education and applied research.

The great companies of the 21st centuries were built by people who dropped out of great universities. These companies are staffed with people who did not drop out, but they were groomed by the local companies while undergraduates.

@The Alchemist

I’ll believe in Third Level reform when Third Level institutions begin publishing figures on the number and cost of cases of wine consumed in a year, dinners for the great and the good, taxis, honorariums, first class travel, fancy gadgets, iPhones for the staff, etc. If reform is needed, follow the money.

I can’t speak about what goes on in administration ranks, but I can tell you that in my school we abolished any kind of coffee or snacks during 4-hour meetings, we never go out to dinner unless we pay for it, we no longer have Christmas parties, and we have no fancy gadgets of any kind unless we pay for them ourselves. As a matter of fact, when my 5-year-old computer started showing signs of its age, I basically had to beg for a replacement. Many of my colleagues prefer to subsidise their employer by buying their own computers, rather than go through the hassle.

I don’t imagine things are quite like this in Hugh Brady’s or Des Fitzgerald’s offices, mind….

The last few months have seen some interesting developments in third level teaching. The Stanford free classes (now called the Coursera program, I believe) presented a series of modules using webcasts and online coursework submission.
More than 100,000 people took part in the three modules. Another series of modules are about to commence, and soon similar programmes (Udacity and MITx) will be joining them.

It is early days on this stuff, but I reckon that it will revolutionise how many things are done, as does Sebastian Thrun.
Surely if we are formulating a strategy for reforming the third level education in Ireland, this is one of the first things on the agenda.

Here is an idea : Rather than go directly to a *university* straight out of school, students attend a two year degree program in an IT, and then apply to go to university for a senior cycle degree programe.

@kevin o’brien

When Hibernia setup to deliver primary school teachers, I gather the traditional teacher training colleges didn’t fall over themselves welcoming the initiative.

Expect plenty of opposition to any change to the status of vested interests.

With technology the way it is and such a small population it is peculiar that the government does not concentrate on creating a university of the air for appropriate courses.

It bothers me that you hear so much blather about the great ICT culture in Ireland and yet when it comes to demonstrating this genius in a big public project all we get is the emperor’s new clothes.

The downside of the virtual university would be redundancies among the established institutions and that would provoke the ire of every local TD, pestered by everyone from catering suppliers to estate agencies.

And who can expect real reform when Croke Park still flies the flag for snail progress.

“The Examiner also notes that distance from home is a major factor in third level participation. ”

I have linked a very interesting talk given by Sebastian Thrun (click on my “name” to see it). About 8 and a half minutes in, Thrun reads out a interesting email from an Afghan student of the course.

“Finland spends about the same as Ireland on higher education, its paybill is lower, there are no fees and it’s hardly a basket case; “threatening our world wide competitiveness,” — what baloney!”

Baloney indeed. In 2008 the OECD show the public expenditure per student on third level was 12% higher in Finland than Ireland on a PPP basis. Since then Finnish expenditure has probably remained broadly constant whereas the Irish expenditure per student has declined markedly. Finland has slightly less people going to third level from an age cohort than is less, so if they spend “the same” they get more bang per student.

Third level is the one publicly funded service in Ireland where international standards are achieved at lower cost than the European average.

As for world class capabilities some scepticism is needed, but if Ireland is to have living standards towards the top internationally then its third level must be reach international standards. I would be less critical of someone aspiring to reach international standards than of the bulk of publicly funded activity in Ireland which does not seem to think that it should be held to an international standard, but only to the same way it always has been. Universities have at least some awareness of the world at large and their place in it.

@Michael Hennigan, it is regrettable that you are more concerned with getting at “professors” on this forum than any informed critique of the issues arising with third level education. There are many things to be improved, but so many critics lack the discernment to identify these things from things that are not in as much need of improvement.

@dearg doom

As for world class capabilities some scepticism is needed, but if Ireland is to have living standards towards the top internationally then its third level must be reach international standards.

Tenuous at best.

Might it not be the other way around? Higher living standards, meaning more purchasing power, bringing along higher education standards?

Despite decades of heavy spend in higher education, living standards haven’t withstood the recession in many homes judging?

dearg doom didn’t get the memo.

Repeat after me: every aspect of the Irish public service must, by definition, be deficient in every possible way. So say Michael Hennigan and the monkey chorus. If you find an aspect of the Irish public service for which you are unable to find any way in which it is woefully deficient, then you should claim that it is wildly overpriced (that one always works). If that doesn’t work, return to your superiors for reprogramming.

from New York Review of Books …. [a must read for educationalists ..

Finland’s highly developed teacher preparation program is the centerpiece of its school reform strategy. Only eight universities are permitted to prepare teachers, and admission to these elite teacher education programs is highly competitive: only one of every ten applicants is accepted. There are no alternative ways to earn a teaching license. Those who are accepted have already taken required high school courses in physics, chemistry, philosophy, music, and at least two foreign languages. Future teachers have a strong academic education for three years, then enter a two-year master’s degree program. Subject-matter teachers earn their master’s degree from the university’s academic departments, not—in contrast to the US—the department of teacher education, or in special schools for teacher education. Every candidate prepares to teach all kinds of students, including students with disabilities and other special needs. Every teacher must complete an undergraduate degree and a master’s degree in education.


Must say I really like that high-school inter-disciplinary focus on ….

… physics, chemistry, philosophy, music, and at least two foreign languages.

… and no ‘murder machine’ ‘points race’ ….

it is regrettable that you are more concerned with getting at “professors” on this forum than any informed critique of the issues arising with third level education.

Mr/MS dearg doom,

First to deal with the facts, OECD’s ‘Education at a Glance 2011’ Annual expenditure per student by educational institutions for all services (2008) – – In equivalent USD converted using PPPs for GDP, by level of education, based on full-time equivalents: All tertiary education:

Ireland: $16,284

Finland: $15,402

Average OECD: $13,717

You are afraid to reveal your identity but you appear to be an insider. I quoted previously published comments from two professors and I’m ‘getting at’ them!!

Another ‘braveheart’, ‘Ernie Ball’ who is apparently a UCD lecturer when he isn’t using the web to peddle abuse, refers to critics as the ‘monkey chorus’ – – so much for tolerance of dissenting opinions.

What George Orwell described as “euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness” can be found in the common use of the term ‘world-class’ in Ireland, which was vividly illustrated by an Irish Times report on 10 Oct, 2010 titled: “Fás board to agree plan for new ‘world-class’ skills body.”

Educational institutions should of course aim for high standards but under the tag ‘world class’ would it be shocking in Ireland that people could spend money that’s not theirs on projects and aspirations that a small bankrupt country cannot afford?

I see merit in John Harpur’s arguments in ‘Innovation, Profit and the Common Good in Higher Education – – The New Alchemy’ in criticising higher education’s assumed role in guaranteeing economic prosperity.

My particular interest is enterprise policy and the delusional visions of the last and current government in seeing university research as the genesis of a new jobs engine.

The situation at third level is similar to why people kept their heads down during the excesses of the bubble and took the loot. At a time of scarcity, funding of science research is being maintained.

What insider would risk the anger of colleagues by questioning the strategy and none have.

How dare I say that any spinout from third level research with potential is invariably acquired by an overseas firm before value added is available locally – – a handy system for academics who wish to be entrepreneurs without risk, exits for venture capital funders and the promoters.

Enterprise Ireland bragged last December on the high level of acquisitions of Irish firms. However, it’s rare for such firms post-acquisition to be scaled up to a significant size in Ireland.

@ David O’Donnell

We need an Irish solution to an Irish problem.

The OECD said in 2010: “Finland is one of the world’s leaders in the academic performance of its secondary school students, a position it has held for the past decade.

This top performance is also remarkably consistent across schools.

Finnish schools seem to serve all students well, regardless of family background, socio-economic status or ability.

There are no fee-paying schools in Finland and no third level tuition fees.

Teachers’ pay in Finland is on a par with that of medical doctors and lawyers.

In 2009, the rate for a primary teacher after 15 years was €50k in Finland and €68k in Ireland according to the OECD. It was €61k at upper secondary level and €68k in Ireland.

In Finland in 2009, a Finnish GP’s pay was 1.8 times the average wage and 3.5 times in Ireland; a salaried specialist earned 2.6 times the average wage in Finland and 4.5 times in Ireland.

@ MH

I heard it best before Xmas when a friend said that she thought her son probably didnt believe in Santa but kept the facade in place in the belief that he would get more presents if he kept believing!!

@Michael Hennigan That would be Dr Dearg Doom 🙂

re Finland your original point was that Finland had a good third level sector and did not charge fees. I pointed out that public expenditure in Ireland was less than in Finland and you pointed out that total expenditure (i.e. including those fees) was a bit higher in Ireland. If your point is that Irish universities had sufficient money in 2008 to be getting on with, I agree, although I could argue about the distribution of those resources. The problem is that they no longer have those resources.

Otherwise you conflate a number of issues. The term “world-class” may well have been abused in Ireland, although the quote from Ciarán Ó’ hÓgartaigh used the term world wide competitiveness. But a university should be judged on the creditability of its own statements, Fás has nothing to do with it. I doubt if many people in universities have a higher opinion of Fás than you do. SFI funding is another issue, one worthy of debate and your observations on the employment spinoff is very relevant. However, it isn’t all that relevant as a criticism of a Dean of a Business School wanting to be competitive, as this and many other parts of universities receive little or no SFI funding. The country may be bankrupt, which makes it all the more odd that then you criticise proposals by universities to raise more funds by charging fees rather than continuing to be burden on the hard pressed taxpayer.

@dearg doom

I gather from comments previously that about 75 percent of what goes into third level goes to pay salaries. At a guess salaries between all the various institutions for permanent academics when employer PRSI and pension contribution is included must average around 100k? Maybe that’s an underestimate.

Before jawing over reform, which will never happen due to TD’s tendency to respond to ‘constituency issues’, it would be helpful if a more detailed breakdown of how the other 25 percent is spent.

Many of the great unwashed including myself remember the Dail committee exchanges about UCD’s over expenditure. The culture of unquestioned entitlement reared its head. Unforgettable theatre.

Our own gentry, etc.

@Alchemist it would be helpful in third level and other public spending if there was more breakdown on what everything else was spent on and how this has evolved over the years. I’d be extremely interested in examining the evolution of administration expenditure on people who never meet students versus expenditure on those who do.

The UCD over expenditure represented a class of “managers” who paid themselves excessive sums, diverting funds from people who actually teach or research to do this. This was not material in the overall expenditure, but set the wrong tone entirely. This was facilitated by inadequate university governance structures, but instead of reforming these to “world class” standards, the civil service have grabbed more power instead, a case of falling from the kettle into the fire.

@Michael Hennigan

‘We need an Irish solution to an Irish problem.

Crux is – thinking is dis-couraged in 2nd level … and in much of 3rd level …

And without ‘thinking’ it can be a mite difficult to recognise problems – let alone come up with viable solutions to solve them.

Finland takes Dewey seriously ….

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