Reconfiguring the landscape

Ireland’s government expects consolidation to play a big role in creating a financially sustainable higher education system. As the sector pores over a new strategy document that will inform ministers, Matthew Reisz considers the shape of things to come

January 24, 2013

Covering the costs: students will before long pay €3,000 a year, says Ruairí Quinn, the minister for education and skills

The elegant linked quadrangles of Trinity College Dublin feel like a vast, calm oasis at the heart of the city. A few tourists are braving the rain to visit the library’s celebrated exhibition on the Book of Kells.

Trinity, established in 1592 as the College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity of Queen Elizabeth near Dublin, is the Republic of Ireland’s only ancient university. A few miles away, at Dún Laoghaire, is a far more recent addition to the sector. Students at the 15-year-old Institute of Art, Design and Technology are taking their first steps in animation, trying out the purpose-built television studio, creating their own personalised chess sets, finalising the costumes for an opera, or acquiring the vital skills that will transform them into the web engineers, cyber-psychologists and digital designers of the future. Last year they produced dissertations on topics ranging from serial killers to bilingual road signs, female model makers and the use of staircases in Hitchcock’s films. If the creative industries continue to play a pivotal role in the Irish economy, many of the innovative ideas they need are being forged here.

Yet from the oldest to the most forward-facing, Ireland’s universities and institutes of technology are all being shaken by a major reform programme that is likely to affect every institution, with many ceasing to exist in their present form.

“We have a very clear map” for the future shape of Irish higher education, Ruairí Quinn, minister for education and skills, told Times Higher Education at the end of last year, “but we don’t have a detailed scale map.”

What is likely to be very close to the final plan was put on the table last week. So how did we get here? And what are the key challenges, financial and other, that the reform programme is designed to address?

For more than a decade from the mid-1990s, Ireland enjoyed the best growth rate in Europe, with many multinationals setting up their European headquarters in the country, attracted by the talent and the tax regime.

There was also a major impact on higher education. The minister believes that national attitudes have been partly shaped by “a rural agricultural community, (where) classically first-generation farmers struggled to get their children into secure jobs and the next generation into third-level education. Many of us grew up in a household where there was a (great) value put on education.” Consequently, the boom years brought a notable increase in university participation rates. From 20 per cent in 1980, they climbed to 36 per cent in 1992 and have now reached 65 per cent. There were also major improvements to infrastructure that at one point made University College Dublin the busiest construction site in the country.

When the crash came, the impact was equally powerful. Austerity measures introduced in response to the banking crisis of 2008 included significant cuts to the national higher education budget. At the same time, demand continued to increase. The Higher Education Authority (roughly the Irish equivalent of the higher education funding councils for England and Wales) reports 20 per cent cuts in state funds accompanied by 12 per cent increases in student numbers over the past four years. This has already hit staff-to-student ratios, which went from 1:18.7 in 2008-09 to 1:24 in 2010-11. Like other public-sector workers, lecturers had their salar-ies cut by an average of 15 per cent in 2010. They were also given an incentive to retire by the end of February 2012 if they wanted to avoid a corresponding cut in pension rights. Funding per student, never particularly high by international standards, is now 30 per cent below that in the UK.

Although Quinn acknowledged that Irish universities have slipped down the Times Higher Education World University Rankings - not one is ranked among the top 100 - he attempted to put a reasonably positive slant on what has been happening. “That we have been able to squeeze the universities while they increased their numbers, causing the student-teacher ratio to suffer, without noticeable diminution in standards, is a testimony to everybody involved or perhaps a revelation that there was a lot of slack in the system - and probably a bit of both.”

Others, unsurprisingly, take a more critical view. “We are dealing with cases each week of people facing redundancy as universities downsize,” Mike Jennings, general secretary of the Irish Federation of University Teachers, told THE last year. “We are simply being starved to death rather than having any dramatic blow to knock us out. It’s a case of death by a thousand cuts.”

With costs ever increasing, John Logue, president of the Union of Students in Ireland, says students are reluctant “to invest more in a system operating below full capacity”.

And if this is worrying, the longer-term picture is even more frightening. A baby boom accompanied Ireland’s years as the Celtic Tiger, so a report by the Economic and Social Research Institute (A Study of Future Demand for Higher Education in Ireland, released at the end of last year) estimates that “potential undergraduate HE entrants” would “grow from 41,000 in 2010/2011 to 44,000 in 2019/20 (7 per cent) and to just over 51,000 by 2029/2030”. The new tuition fees regime in England has created additional pressure because it has meant that fewer Irish students want to attend English universities while traffic in the other direction has increased.

The challenge for the government and the sector is how to pay for this expansion while maintaining quality in the context of tight public spending limits.

The initial impetus for what Quinn calls “the reconfiguration of the landscape” came from the National Strategy for Higher Education to 2030, commonly known as the Hunt report, released in January 2011 after a series of delays. Although this started by praising “exceptional development in the recent past - moving from a system that was confined to a social elite, to one of widespread participation”, it soon made clear the need for fundamental reform.

The strategy group that produced the report, chaired by the economist Colin Hunt, went back to first principles and offered many recommendations about teaching, research, engagement, governance and internationalisation. They suggested that there was only one plausible way to combine growth in participation with tight public budgets without compromising quality: students or graduates must “directly share in the cost of their education” through a system based on a combination of upfront fees and income-contingent loans.

The Hunt report was equally clear about the need for structural change in the higher education sector. Ireland operates a binary system not unlike that in Britain before 1992, although the minister is delighted that the country has “strenuously avoided the mistake of rebranding everything as a university”. It currently has 39 publicly funded institutions, in a country with a population of just 4.5 million: seven universities and 14 institutes of technology (which grew out of regional technical colleges) as well as colleges of education and a few niche providers such as the Royal Irish Academy of Music. Even given a tendency for students to study locally, some claim that this is simply too many and has led to “mission drift” and needless duplication of courses.

“We now have 1,330 courses in 45 institutions, including private institutions: (the number of courses) has trebled over the last 20 years,” says Tony Donohoe, head of education, social and innovation policy at the Irish Business and Employers Confederation. “So there’s an element of duplication and an element of segmentation within particular disciplines. Degrees in subjects such as medicinal chemistry are attractive to undergraduates, but they drive too-early specialisation and…don’t make sense for the economy as a whole. We’d be in favour of more broadly based offerings.”

Hunt recommended both the development of “regional clusters of collaborating institutions” and “institutional consolidation that will result in a smaller number of larger institutions”. Although this was unlikely to mean mergers across the binary divide, institutes of technology were expected to amalgamate. Such bigger groups could also embark on an extended process, including “international peer review”, to meet the criteria for redesignation as technological universities. These will be a new kind of institution within the Irish scene, focusing on the applied sciences and applied skills rather than pure research, although even the minister admitted that different people still had different ideas of what they would actually look like in practice.

All this offered a clear blueprint but left a good deal of detail to be worked out. So the HEA issued a consultation document in February 2012 that required all universities and institutes of technology to make submissions setting out what they saw as their core mission and their place within the reformed sector as a whole.

This was followed last July by another HEA consultation document that made it clear that institutions were going to be required to agree on some key performance indicators - with up to 5 per cent of their funding, from 2014, dependent on their success in meeting them. Metrics for access, quality of research and the results of student surveys, as well as commitment to forming “clusters”, could be among those taken into account.

There were two further developments last November. The HEA published a report (A Proposed Reconfiguration of the Irish System of Higher Education) by an international panel of experts led by Frans van Vught, former head of the University of Twente. This came up with a number of bold suggestions that went well beyond Hunt, notably a full merger of Trinity College Dublin and University College Dublin - an idea almost as radical as a merger between Oxford and Cambridge, which has often been mooted and rejected in the past. The minister soon made clear that he thought it was a non-starter.

Released at the same time was a second analysis (Institutional Responses to the Landscape Document) that examined the extent to which the aggregated submissions of individual institutions would lead to the new “coherent system of Irish higher education” envisaged by Hunt.

The authors of the analysis, which the HEA commissioned and published, were clearly unimpressed by the institutions’ responses, which were inwardly focused, “in general conservative” and left “much of the system unchanged”.

“The commitment to formal and effective regional clustering is weak,” they add, reporting few signs that “there will be any significant level of voluntary course or faculty rationalisations, whether in expensive courses or otherwise. The number of medical and engineering faculties, for example, would remain largely unchanged… “

The key word here, of course, is “voluntary”. Given that the institutional players had failed to come up with what was required, the report concluded by calling on the HEA and the government to take a more active approach and to set out their own “preferred system configuration”.

In the event, the HEA opted to do that rather earlier than expected by issuing a new document, Completing the Landscape Process for Irish Higher Education, last week. This offers a full “system configuration” for the whole sector, based on “existing relationships” and the submissions of the institutions themselves as well as the goals of the national strategy. It will form the basis for further consultation in February, so the HEA can offer its definitive advice to the minister in March.

As expected, no formal mergers between the seven existing universities are proposed, although some will incorporate smaller institutions, with the Royal Irish Academy of Music, for example, becoming part of Trinity College Dublin and the Shannon College of Hotel Management part of the National University of Ireland, Galway.

Far more significant, however, is what the HEA is suggesting for the institutes of technology, whose total number is likely to be reduced from 14 to eight. Two groups have already expressed a clear interest in coming together to apply to become technological universities: a Dublin Alliance (Dublin IT, IT Blanchardstown and IT Tallaght, Dublin) and a South-East merger of Waterford IT and IT Carlow. There has also been talk of a possible Munster Technological University involving Cork IT and IT Tralee (although Limerick IT has indicated that it no longer wants to join them). Furthermore, the HEA notes that a “strategic alliance agreement” already commits a Connaught Ulster Alliance of Galway-Mayo IT, IT Sligo and Letterkenny IT “to develop significant and meaningful collaboration on a comprehensive range of activities”, adding that it saw “clear benefits for the West/North West region” if they actually merged.

Looking at the sector as a whole, the HEA document proposes that the 39 existing publicly funded institutions be reduced to 24 - and perhaps even fewer, if further discussion means that other smaller players such as the Dublin Dental University Hospital and the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland are incorporated into bigger ones. Most of the separate colleges of education, religious and secular, will now form part of larger institutions. The HEA also sets out, “as the basis for discussion”, plans for five regional clusters short of mergers.

Further streamlining would come from focusing on particular subject areas. A report is imminent on the teaching of creative arts in the Dublin region (which may offer recommendations about whether the Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology should remain independent, see box below right). The HEA also proposes to continue a series of reviews in areas such as engineering, nursing and medicine to ensure comprehensive coverage without unnecessary duplication.

Here at last, then, is the detailed map putting into practice Hunt’s vision of “institutional consolidation that will result in a smaller number of larger institutions”.

And how will it all be paid for? The Hunt report cited a need for an additional €500 million (£413.5 million) a year simply to keep up with the predicted growth in enrolment. The Irish Universities Association has also asked where the resources will come from to set up one or more technological universities.

A number of suggestions for future funding are being actively debated within the sector (see below). But what are the government’s thoughts on the way ahead?

Tuition fees were abolished in 1996-97, when Quinn was minister for finance, although students were subject to a nominal charge equivalent to about €180. This increased over the years until it became a tuition fee in all but name, as the block grant replacing fees failed to keep pace with inflation and a financial crisis loomed.

When Quinn took on his current portfolio in 2011, he recalls: “The fee was €2,000 and I said: ‘Let’s call it what it is, a student fee. It needs to be increased to sustain the costs, so we will increase it over four years in four tranches [of €250 each] - up to a likely maximum of €3,000 for students entering the system in 2015-16… ’ I have no plans to increase it further after that.”

Given that he had signed a Union of Students in Ireland pledge before the 2011 general election to reduce the charge to €1,500, this was a “Nick Clegg” moment that has often returned to haunt him.

Yet even a tuition fee of €3,000 will not be sufficient in the longer term, and Quinn observes that “the Bank of Ireland has introduced for this academic year a postgraduate student loan scheme, and we are going to watch with considerable interest how that functions. There was no state guarantee as the bank feared that would lead to higher levels of reneging!”

While “not opposed in principle” to an undergraduate loan scheme as well, Quinn is “just concerned how practical it is”, given that the Irish are “a very mobile people” and “you have to look at the repayment capacity… It’s a debate we have to have, but any such scheme needs to be tailored to the realities of the Irish diaspora.” Some systems might amount to a “mammy’s immigration tax”, with young Irish unable to come home and see their mothers until they had paid off their student loans. Although this is obviously a joke, it also suggests that there is still much work to be done before a new funding regime can be put in place.

Maintaining competitiveness

The universities’ view of the road ahead

Mark Rogers is vice-president for academic affairs at University College Dublin, which, with about 30,000 students, is the country’s largest university. He is determined that it remain “a broad-based educational establishment” as well as “a research-intensive university on the international stage”.

“We want to ensure that the research and scholarship that a university is all about gets translated back into the student experience.”

Although he rules out a merger, Rogers argues that “that’s not to say we aren’t collaborating quite closely with Trinity [College Dublin]”, for example on modules for teacher training and widening participation schemes within the Dublin Regional HE Alliance.

He is “supportive of the concept of ‘regional clusters’, although the phrase can mean different things to different people”, but he is far less keen on the idea of creating technological universities that would “sit in the middle ground between universities and institutes of technology and just bring confusion”.

University College Dublin has seen “a significant shift over the past decade”, Rogers adds, with philanthropy, spin-off companies, fees from non-European Union students and other sources of income meaning that “44 per cent of our turnover is now non-Exchequer”. Yet to take this further requires “a balance between how the state wants to regulate us and the flexibility it can give us in terms of managing our own affairs. With funding levels going down, there’s concern that they still want to maintain similar levels of regulation. It’s quite inflexible in terms of salaries and increasing staff numbers, even if you are able to pay them from non-Exchequer sources.”

Ned Costello, chief executive of the Irish Universities Association, argues that a focus on “structural issues” obscures the fact that “the sector as a whole is pretty competitive for the size of the country”. He is also highly critical of plans for an element of discretionary performance-based funding for universities.

“We have written to the Higher Education Authority,” he explains, “and the critical issue is that it needs to be incentive-based - ‘you will succeed in drawing down performance funding if you achieve certain things’ - and not ‘you will have funding withdrawn from you if you don’t do certain things’… These are great things to talk about in a well-funded sector, but in a sector at the threshold of viability, particularly in the context of continuing cutbacks, it can’t make sense to have the capacity to withdraw a percentage of university funding.

“The criteria are still at the level of ‘achieving national objectives’, but we haven’t yet defined what the national objectives are.”

In search of sustainability

How to pay for the system

“We were the lightning rod on this,” says Tony Donohoe, head of education, social and innovation policy at the Irish Business and Employers Confederation.

“We have been unambiguous on funding issues ever since the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development first flagged up the looming shortfalls in 2004. What is needed to underpin the quality of Irish higher education is an income-contingent loan system.”

For Mark Rogers, vice-president for academic affairs at University College Dublin, “the key issue is whether the government can support a free university system. I don’t particularly have a view on that, but if fees get introduced, it won’t do us any good if they simply replace the government funding that subsidises [universities], and that is what has been happening up to now. The fact is that students now have to pay us more, and they don’t like us for that, but we don’t get any more money [overall] and that is unsustainable.”

Ned Costello, chief executive of the Irish Universities Association, accepts that “the overall rubric has to be that institutions need to be less dependent on the state, but the state needs to create the conditions for that to happen.

“In terms of resource per student, the system is at rock bottom. While every productivity and efficiency avenue can and should be pursued, that can become a smokescreen for the fact that there is a funding problem.

“We’ve always said we favour a loan scheme. The obvious practical difficulty is how you bankroll it in the short term, considering the crisis facing the Ex-chequer and the credit crunch. The important thing is to start planning now. Even if it can’t be done now, it should be thought about.”

John Logue, president of the Union of Students in Ireland, worries that the search for non-Exchequer funding risks “taking academics away from core teaching time”. A strong focus on meeting the criteria to become a technological university was likely to have a similar effect, he says.

Annie Doona, president of the Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology, “would like to stabilise the amount the state is giving us and then find ways to add to that rather than replace it. We are seriously underfunded as a system - I think that is well recognised.”

She adds: “The UK, Australian and other models are all out there being discussed. A proper fee system, with student loans and a graduate tax, would work perfectly well. The problem is we’ve probably missed the boat on that, because the time to do it was in the boom years when banks were lending.”

Eager to collaborate but unsure about merger

The view from one institute of technology

Annie Doona is president of the Dún Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology.

Unlike many of the other institutes of technology, the IADT offers almost entirely honours and master’s courses, in film, art and creative technologies and in enterprise and the humanities, designed for those who want to work as entrepreneurs in the creative sector.

Research focuses on three areas: applied psychology (particularly cyber-psychology), public culture, and creative arts, film, stage and screen (largely practice-based).

“In our submission,” says Doona, “we supported the notion of regional clusters and also thematic clusters - based, in our case, on links to creative industries. The government is always talking about scale and size. We have 2,500 students, which is small. The specialist nature of our provision helps us, but there’s still pressure to look at economies of scale. We say we can do that through a cluster, shared services, shared provision, but we struggle with where we would sit within a much larger institution.

“Cross-disciplinary research doesn’t require formal mergers. We want to retain IADT as a unique specialist institution and would need to be convinced that we could do that within a technological university, particularly since the documentation puts so much stress on science and technology.”

In the short term, Doona is more concerned by the way that “the employment control framework puts restrictions on the number of staff you can employ, which makes it hard to grow our programmes. We have the money but can’t employ more staff.”

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