Prof Brigid Laffan, Director of the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies, European University of Florence(EUI)


But, somehow or other, he should never cease to promote in children the determination to say Yes to life, to the dark as well as to the bright of it, to its beauty and glory, to its lapses from grace into degradation, and its eventual restoration to serenity. Thus it is that, as a person, the teacher needs to be carefully selected, not for false piety or similar inferior motive, but above all for an infectious enthusiasm allied to knowledge in its widest sense. (Bryan MacMahon, A Final Fling, 1998)

At the end of August, I leave the Irish university system having spent 35 years as a lecturer and professor.  I have lectured to large groups (350+) and small, in the lecture theatre and seminar rooms, at undergraduate and graduate level in Ireland and abroad.  I spent most of my academic career doing what an academic does, lecturing, engaging in research and writing.  I also had the privilege of working closely, as a Vice President, with UCD President, Dr. Hugh Brady, during a time of extensive change and reform in my university, UCD. Beyond Ireland, I have reviewed institutions, disciplinary areas, courses, excellence grants and research proposals in other systems in Europe, including Europe’s largest HE systems, over many years.   I have experienced major changes in academic life over the course of my career.  The single most significant change has been the intensification of the internationalisation of academic life.  When I started my career, there were just two annual academic meetings outside Ireland in my subject field that I would attend.  Over the last 20 years, there has been an explosion of academic networks and collaborative research and publication projects, underpinned by the internet.  Although borders and national systems of higher education still matter, universities and individual scholars inhabit a truly internationalised networked world.  When hiring today, one wants to hire a colleague that is networked within and beyond their discipline across Europe and further afield.  Thus when thinking about Ireland’s system of higher education, we must be aware that HE in particular is both a driver of and subject to the dynamics of globalisation.

Building the best education system in the world is an admirable goal, certainly an admirable goal for a country in search of recovery and reputation building.   It is an admirable goal for a country that values education and one that invested heavily from the 1960s onwards in education at all levels.   But is being the ‘best’ beyond us?   Do we have the resources to be that ambitious?  And if so, what would it require to achieve it?   How would we know that we had the best education system in the world?   What are the benchmarks that we might use?   Where would we begin?   What is our capacity to achieve this lofty goal?   We must be mindful that the world of HE is expanding and shifting and as the Irish system changes so, too, do other systems in countries that have more resources than we have.  The generation and transmission of knowledge is accelerating.   So, too, are the costs of research.  In May 2013, the Minister set out seven objectives for the Irish HE system that made reference to ‘world-class’, ‘excellence in teaching and learning’, ‘an open and excellent public research system’, ‘globally competitive’ and ‘internationally oriented’. This mix of objectives would most likely be found in the priorities established by any Government in Europe and beyond. Higher Education globally has become much more competitive, characterised by competition for scholars, funding, the best students and indicators of esteem.   Across the world, governments are pursuing reform and enhancing their national systems of higher education in the search for differentiation and comparative advantage. This is clear in the nature of the targeted strategic investments in research and education.  These initiatives foster a culture of intense competition, of which rankings are one indicator.  National competition is embedded in a dynamic of global competition as countries seek their niche in the evolving knowledge economy.  Competition and internationalisation will intensify not weaken over the next 20 years.  I am not intent in engaging in analysis of where the Irish system is.  Rather two different items of data point to both success and failure in our education system.

Data: Indicators of Success and Failure

A Serious Failure: NEETS

NEETS refers to those young people who are neither in education or training in the 15 to 17 age cohort.   Given the high correlation between levels of educational attainment and life chances, the proportion of the 15-17 age cohort not in education or training is a very strong signal, a red light, highlighting  those in society who will be vulnerable to unemployment and underachievement and perhaps long term dependence on welfare transfers.   The figures for Ireland are high and worrying. The EU 15 average for NEETs in 2011 was 3.2 % but the figure for Ireland was 6.5% and is estimated at 7.6% for 2012.  Throughout the 2000s when Ireland was a country of plenty, this figure hovered between 6 and 9 % of the age cohort.   Ireland did not use its time of plenty to systematically tackle embedded social problems such as those leaving our schools without qualifications or the number of jobless households in the country.   In Denmark, the figure for NEETs was at or under 2%, the Netherlands at or under 1%, the UK 3-4%.  This stark statistic tells us that not only is our education system not best in class but that for a significant cohort of our young people, it fails to equip them with the very basics for life in contemporary society and economy.

Growing Participation Rates

Ireland has achieved a major expansion in participation rates in higher education.  When I was at university, under 20% of my age cohort went on to third level.  The next decades saw a sharp increase from 20% to 25% in the 1980s, to 44% by the end of the 1990s, to over 50% in the early 2000s and now over 60%.  This is a remarkable achievement in growing participation rates.  Figures for all EU member states showed that, in 2010, one in three (33%) of all 25-34 year olds had a third level qualification.  This compared to a figure of 48% for Ireland, ranking the country joint highest in the EU with Cyprus (48%) while Austria, Italy and Romania had the lowest levels of third level attainment (all 21%).[1]  The Irish figure grew from 30% in 2000 to 48% in 2011.[2]  So, the Irish system of HE has delivered on the numbers.   It has managed to absorb and process a growing number of students over 20 years.  The world of HE is however shifting and if we strip it all back what would make a difference?

What Would Make A Difference?

Ireland is a country experiencing a deep crisis that, depending on what will happen with the global and European economy, may face a decade of slow or no growth with all of the attendant consequences for economic well-being and social cohesion.   Regardless, it behoves a country that blew the one opportunity it had over 20 years to assure itself a prosperous future not to shirk from the tough questions.  The Irish system of public policy is hard wired to engage in incremental policy and institutional change, usually in tandem, rather than ‘bite the bullet’ on tough issues.  The Irish political system does not easily tackle vested interests be they local or national, public or private.

After 35 very happy years in the Irish university system, what do I think would make a difference? I will restrict myself to three and will make no reference to the resourcing of the system or to the rankings.

  • Beyond the Numbers: A Focus on Excellence and Quality:  the Irish system of HE has developed quality assurance and quality improvement processes since the 1990s.  There are periodic reflections by academic units of their collective endeavour in the form of self-assessment reports, peer review and feedback.   Some academic units themselves engage in serious assessment of their research output but this is not widespread. Irish institutions of HE including the universities are patchy, with some outstanding departments and schools and some outstanding scholars but quality is not uniform.   Aspiring to be the best or even good enough for the 21st century requires a focus on quality and excellence throughout the system not just on ‘islands of excellence’.   There is no serious assessment of the performance of individual academics other than through the promotions system which has indeed become far more rigorous across the Irish system.   An early career scholar achieves permanency and tenure relatively quickly and their subsequent performance owes almost everything to self-motivation, ambition, passion for their subject, and the academic culture surrounding them. If a scholar, for whatever reason, is not research active or barely active, there is very little that can be done.   PMDS, an off shoot of benchmarking, is unsuited for HE institutions.   The quality of a HE institution is driven almost entirely by the quality of its academic staff.   Every time a university hires an early career scholar or a professor, they are making a very serious and costly investment in their institution. One of the key roles of an academic leader is to hire quality scholars and if none are available, make no hire at all. Satisfying is not good enough.   Without quality academics throughout and some stars, individual institutions and the wider system of higher education will remain patchy.   Ireland lacks the rigour, some would say the brutality, of the US tenure system or the periodic review of research, the RAE now the RIF in the UK.   Outstanding academics have opportunities to move and are increasingly mobile but a ‘poor hire’ is there for life because they will have no other opportunity.   Thus if we are serious about the quality of our HE system, Ireland needs a more robust tenure system (5 years) and/or the opportunity to transfer academics to teaching only contracts if they are and remain research inactive. Good scholars want to work in good departments with colleagues that they rate. In turn, good academics will attract good graduate students and visitors. A good academic unit shines – it has a particular quality and atmosphere; it knows what it is good at, is committed to high standards and communicates this to its students, and the wider academy both nationally and internationally.  ERC (European Research Council) awards are a powerful indicator of the presence of that much abused concept, ‘world class’, in a university and country.   UK universities have outperformed all other countries in all three categories of grants each year since the ERC was launched.   This was not accidental but the result of decisions taken in the 1980s on performance, particularly research performance.
  • Differentiation: Ireland has a binary system consisting of seven universities and 14 institutions of technology in addition to a number of other HE institutions.  The decision has been taken to transform some of the IOTs into technological universities.  Thus, the HE system will have three kinds of institutions, (a), the universities, (b) the technological universities and (c) the remaining IOTs clustered in various configurations.  The new element is clearly the future designation of technological universities.  Three sets of institutions have been given the green light to move to stage two of the process of becoming technological universities.  Yet, there is a sharp distinction, perhaps with the exception of DIT, between the existing 7 universities and the IOTs.  See Table 1. In 2010/11, the seven universities were responsible for 93% of doctoral candidates in Ireland, 98%of research expenditure, 99% of research contracts and grants and 84% of research staff.   In other words, the research intensive side of the Irish HE system lies in the universities on all of the metrics.   In enrolment terms, the universities had 76,912 UG students, just slightly above the IOTs combined at 73,004 but the figures for post-graduate students and international students is very different.  The universities had 26,276 PG students and over 11, 000 international students in contrast to 5,376 PG students and 1,201 international students.  The Irish IOT sector is largely devoted to teaching from level 6 to 8. In 1992, the UK government designated all of the polytechnics as universities and they still struggle with their mission.  The UK is a two tier system in disguise.
  • There is a very sharp contrast between the academic credentials of the academic staff in the universities and the IOTs.  In the IOTs, 24 % of staff have PhDs in contrast to 75% in the universities. A PhD is not even the competitive entry grade to an academic post today. Any good department when hiring is looking for a PhD from a very good university combined with international post-doc experience and publications.  That’s what excellence or the best means just to be short listed for an interview.  The very real danger in Ireland is that all of our institutes of HE will chase university designation and that all HE institutions will seek to do the same things. Official policy is that there should be diversity of offers and institution type but if all HE institutions are chasing internationalisation, research grants, doctoral students and so on, the system will be the weaker for it.
  • There is no formal differentiation within the university system – we do not make the call for example the level of research intensity across the universities.   When TCD and UCD launched the Innovation Alliance, it was met with deep concern in the other five universities as this was seen as an attempt to establish a tiered system among the universities.  Yet the data is clear. There are marked differences in the volume of published output, research income, numbers of international students and doctoral students across the system.   Put simply, some of our universities are more research intensive than others.   Moreover, all of the academic units in our universities are smaller and less well-resourced than those in other countries that we benchmark ourselves against. If we are serious about ‘world-class’ and ‘critical mass’ we should be prepared to think beyond where we are now, way beyond the May 2013 landscape proposals.  I am not an advocate of ‘merger’ but I am a strong advocate of ‘confederal’ arrangements that would bring the rather sparse academic resources we have in our system under the same roof.  I would begin with a confederal arrangement within the University of Dublin involving the two largest universities.   Having secured that, it might or should then be open to expansion. Dublin is an extremely attractive destination for students and should be marketed as such.
  • Strip it Back and Focus on the Essentials: Education like many areas of human endeavour is subject to fashion and fad.   The language deployed changes.   We are now in the era of teaching and learning, identifying learning outcomes, the student experience and so on.  The teaching and learning strategies of one university after another have a sameness, almost a blandness, about them. I deeply regret the manner in which the word ‘teaching’ has invaded higher education. At third level, our role is to educate not to teach; it is to try to ensure that our graduates become self-motivated learners not that they achieve bland learning outcomes or are taught.   The ambition of the Irish HE system must be that all of its graduates leave having achieved deep substantive knowledge, a strong analytical capacity, an ability and willingness to challenge received truths and the skills to communicate effectively both orally and in writing.   As educators, we must ask ourselves if we have done enough to embed critical thinking in programme design, delivery and assessment as the core graduate attribute.   Irish education, while strong in many ways, is currently not designed to foster rigorous critical thinking.  The problems begin in our second level system.   As a society, we have paid a very high price for the lack of discordant voices and our unwillingness to listen to those few voices that cried halt.   In addition to research, the role of the individual lecturer is to ‘get the students hooked’, to awaken in them an interest and passion for the subject, to stretch them, encourage them and get them intellectually engaged.   If we focus on the quality of the individual academics, both early career and within the professoriate, quality and excellence both in education and research will be taken care of.


I feel deeply privileged to have been part of the Irish university system, to have seen thousands of graduates develop and progress.   It is a system that has delivered in terms of managing the rapid expansion of the system and moving beyond undergraduate education.   It has over the last 15 years become more research intensive, at least in the universities.   The times of plenty drew a significant number of internationally recognized scholars to Ireland; some have gone and it is increasingly difficult to hold the very best who always have options, are always mobile.   When I think beyond the plethora of reports on HE from the OECD, the EU and the Hunt report, I would strip them all back to a number of key essentials or prescriptions.   Mine are:

  1. Hire the very best scholars you can attract and bite the bullet on tenure and periodic review;
  2. Make sure that in the transition to technological universities, the key metrics are based on high academic standards with no sliding. Be prepared to differentiate also across the universities and be prepared to be bolder on the landscape.
  3. Watch the jargon around education.   Never forget what Bryan MacMahon, my fellow Kerry man said of educators – of the need ‘above all for an infectious enthusiasm allied to knowledge in its widest sense’.

Table 1: Indicators of Research Intensity

HE Institutions PhD Candidates Research Expenditure Contract Research Staff Contract Research Staff
Universities 7,697 (93%) 399.7m€ (98%) 4,159 (84%) 402,356m€ (99%)
IOTs 519 81M€ 816 73.8M€


Table 2: Publications

[to follow]


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