Brussels, 09 Feb 2004
Ireland's Minister for Education, Noel Dempsey, questioned whether universities should continue to have the dual role of teaching and conducting research as he opened a conference on 'Learning in the Europe of knowledge' in Galway, Ireland, on 6 February.
He asked whether this arrangement should continue to be 'the norm', adding that 'It is, of course, not the norm everywhere.' He cited the 'grandes écoles' in France and arts colleges in the US, which successfully focus on scholarship rather than research.
'Whatever the education community decides, it is important to remember that higher education is not only utilitarian, but plays an important part in cultural preservation and individual development,' said Mr Dempsey. 'We must not lose sight of these [roles] as we seek to meet the economic and social challenges of the knowledge society in the years ahead.'
The minister also alluded to the funding crisis facing many universities in Europe, and outlined possible strategies for resolving the issue. He rejected both increasing overall government resources, and increasing the proportion of government resources allocated to higher education, claiming that it would not be easy for governments, at this time, to either raise taxes or redirect spending away from other priorities.
While society clearly benefits in the long term from investment in education, substantially increasing public funding would, for governments, be 'difficult to justify when funds raised from taxpayers are used primarily for the benefit of a generally advantaged group,' said Mr Dempsey. 'That is the story of higher education. There is a general benefit to all from national investment in higher education, but there are also very substantial personal benefits to those who access it,' he added.
Mr Dempsey instead suggested that debate should focus on increasing the private resources invested in higher education. The Australian and proposed UK models involve graduates paying for their time in university once their salary is above a set threshold.
'If we look beyond Europe, we can see well developed models of contribution that go much further than the Australian and UK examples. We may be uncomfortable with them, but we need to understand them.' The minister referred to three 'p' words: ''Public' we do not mind. 'Private' and 'profit' those of us in the public sector can find somewhat dubious,' he said. He then conceded, however, that 'private' and 'profit' could provide capital for 'research, facilities, and other needs'.
Mr Dempsey called on the conference participants to embrace these models in order to meet the challenge of funding the expansion of higher education in a competitive global environment.