This is an expanded version of an opinion piece which I have authored in the Irish Times Wednesday 14 August 2013
Troubles, they tell us, comes in threes. For Irish universities this week shows that in spades. On one day we see a number of threads which taken together should give us some significant concern. These three threads are the proposed new funding model for third level (a classic curates egg), the issue of revenue auditing research and development tax credits and the issue of how much or little businesses worldwide engage with universities.
Before we delve into these its perhaps worth reminding ourselves of a few issues.
First, Ireland has an excellent third and fourth level system, with still surprisingly low levels of graduate unemployment and with significant pockets of world-class research.
Second, we have less state involvement than is commonly thought. Of the 1.5b per annum a large part of this is a subsidy for free fees. There is little appetite in the wider population for this to be abolished.
Third, we spend, over the tertiary sector cycle, less on average than the rest of the OECD (Which includes many countries much less well off than us).
Fourth, we have had no national open debate on what we want from our third and fourth level education system. The changes that are coming are led from the center, reflecting an ongoing tussle between the department of Education and Skills and the HEA. There has been little effort and perhaps exists less appetite to engage a debate amongst all stakeholders on what we want from our higher education sector.
Fifth, there is a genuine confusion in the debates, muted as they are, about what we want from universities and what they do. Universities coproduce public and private goods. The public good is an educated reflective society and an independent critical thinking academy; the market will not provide this and so it falls to society to fund same. The private goods are the enhanced skills (over non graduates) which graduates attain. These, in principle, should give enhanced earnings which can be taxed and thus defray part of the public good cost as well as attracting some cofunding from the recipient in the form of fees. This is rarely outlined with state funding seen as wasteful, luxurious, and profligate and tax seen as something intrinsically evil to be avoided at all costs. And therefore the debate revolves around funding – how much to whom how and at what benefit.
Sixth, we are already well on the way to a corporate led university sector – the Irish League of Credit Unions latest survey on third level suggests that 1/2 of all third level entrants choose a place not based on what they like or feel they are competent to do but instead on the basis of current labour market vacancies. If this is the case then already universities have become training camps for the business sector....