Towards freedom, and more success

The past 10 years have seen their fair share of ups and downs for higher education in Ireland, but Ferdinand von Prondzynski, outgoing president of Dublin City University, leaves his post with more than a hint of optimism for the future

August 10, 2010

About a month ago, on 13 July, I came to the end of my term of office as president of Dublin City University.

Under Irish law, all university heads hold office for 10 years or less, so you know well in advance when it’s going to end. On the whole this is probably good for the universities and good for the presidents; 10 years is long enough before new thinking is needed.

Back in 2000 I came to Dublin City from the University of Hull, where I had been a faculty dean. I had just come through several years of quality assessment, research assessment, transparency reviews, and Dearing.

In Ireland there really hadn’t been any of that. The first formal quality assurance programme had yet to be initiated in any university, and there was no research assessment exercise. It was a system still built heavily around the autonomy of both academics and their institutions, and at the time very little was process driven in the way that had become the norm in England.

But one thing had just changed in Ireland 10 years ago: the availability of research funding. When I was a lecturer at Trinity College Dublin in the 1980s, most research was conducted with resources that relied almost entirely on goodwill and ingenuity. There were no serious funding programmes or bodies.

Then in the late 1990s the government, supported by Irish-American philanthropist Chuck Feeney, launched a major research investment scheme: the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI).

This transformed the landscape, providing significant capital funding for buildings and equipment, and recurrent funding to employ full-time researchers.

Almost overnight, Irish universities became internationally competitive and were able to attract some star players from around the world.

The research effort picked up speed when, in 2001, the government established Science Foundation Ireland, which is loosely based on the model of the US National Science Foundation and which provides large-scale investment for high-value research projects, often conducted in collaboration with industry.

But if research funding became increasingly effective, the resources for teaching and learning were much less adequate.

In 1995, the government had abolished tuition fees for Irish and European Union students. While this was a very popular move politically, it has had damaging consequences for the higher education sector. Over the past 15 years, the former tuition fees – now paid by government, together with the recurrent grant – declined in value in real terms to such an extent that, in practice, it could be said that the government abolished fees and, over a few years, forced the universities to absorb the loss.

Now, in 2010, a student attracts about half the support from the taxpayer, in real terms, as he or she did back in the late 1990s.

As the recent recession hit Ireland hard, funding for teaching has declined further to such an extent that quality issues now loom large.

This financial crisis for the sector is recognised widely, but nobody seems to know what to do about it, and the government has committed itself not to reintroduce tuition fees.

At the same time, there is increasing pressure to bureaucratise, to rationalise and to impose government controls on the institutional strategies of universities.

However, the story is still not all bad. The Irish government has just launched another cycle of PRTLI (research) funding with very significant sums of money, and there may be an increasing recognition that less money accompanied by tighter controls is not necessarily a winning policy; we must see how it all unfolds.

One thing we may be getting better at is communication. In my own case, I have written a widely read blog and a weekly column in the Irish Times newspaper, in which I have focused on both the problems and the opportunities of higher education.

And gradually, the sector’s natural supporters in industry, the voluntary sector and elsewhere have become more open in their backing of our cause. So while times are still tough, and serious problems and risks remain, I am cautiously optimistic that the outlook for my university, for my successor and for my colleagues is good.

I have loved this job. I admire and feel great affection for my staff and my university. I believe that, in the end, the Irish understand the importance of education and the need to let it be free so it can be creative and innovative.

I shall watch new developments with great interest.

Ferdinand von Prondzynski was president of Dublin City University from July 2000 until July 2010. He publishes a blog and is a member of Ireland’s National Competitiveness Council.

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