Locking the BMW into the slow lane

Professor Emeritus Seamus Caulfield

(Some brief observations on the OECD Review of Higher Education in Ireland for meeting with elected representatives, Buswells Hotel, 18 May 2005)

 

Summary

 

The current success and the future of the Irish economy is recognised by everyone to be reliant on nothing more than our human resources.  A knowledge society based on a diversely educated workforce is essential for success in the future.  The creation of knowledge through basic research and the application of that knowledge through applied research is now and even more so in the future will be the infrastructure on which economic success will be built.

 

A region which creates new knowledge through research and then has the capability to apply that knowledge is clearly an advantage over a region which is only allowed to apply the knowledge created elsewhere.  The South and East Region has

six universities and eight institutes of technology.  The BMW Region has one university and six institutes of technology campuses.

 

The OECD Review of Higher Education in Ireland has recommended that the institutes of technology be put back into their

role as defined in the 1970s, that they only be allowed apply knowledge created elsewhere and even where they have developed to awarding higher postgraduates degrees that this right should be rescinded.  They also recommended that institutes of technology be denied access to research funding except specific funding from Enterprise Ireland.  The OECD team of experts when in Ireland visited three universities and six institutes but did not set foot in the BMW region. 

         If one wished to devise a way to permanently institutionalise a two speed economy in Ireland with the BMW Region falling further and further behind the South and East region the best way to do so would be to implement the recent OECD Review of Higher Education in Ireland.

 

--------------------------------------------------------------------

 

The OECD Review of Higher Education in Ireland published in late 2004 contains many positive recommendations for the future direction of Higher Education in Ireland.  The removal of levels of direct central control from the Institutes of Technology (IoTs) should lead to more rapid and positive response to regional needs by the Institutes.  Recommendations for higher levels of investment in research are also to be welcomed.  However the main thrust of the Review is one that shackles the developing and developed IoTs and recommends that they return to their original function of the 1970s.  In the context of this meeting the shackling of the Institutes of Technology is in my view the single greatest threat to balanced regional development in Ireland.  The Review recommends that basic or primary research should be confined to the seven universities, that research funding for which the IoTs now compete with the universities should no longer be open to them and that the right to award higher degrees are Ph.D level should be rescinded.

 

The Review can be seen to be a flawed document on a number of counts of which is that it is already out of date.  Ireland is not as described sixth in position of per capita GDP in the OECD, it is now fourth behind US, Luxembourg and Norway.  When one realised that the Luxembourg statistics are totally exaggerated by the 60% boost to its workforce by frontier workers who are not resident in Luxembourg and that Norway’s wealth is based on finite resources of oil and gas, then Ireland’s position is much closer to the top of the league.  Over the last fifteen years the Irish economy has been more dynamic than any other country in the world (and more than double the second best, Korea, if one again ignores the Luxembourg statistics).

 

A second area which must be questioned is the perception of a demographic problem of declining numbers and falling birth rate.  But even if the birth rate falls from 23 per thousand in the early seventies to 14 per thousand around 2016 this will still yield more children as the population will have grown from three to five million in hat time.  While it is true that there will be some minor decline until 2012, this is not permanent and numbers will begin to grow rapidly after that.  The demographic issue should be seen as a small window of opportunity over the next six to seven years to boost the numbers of life-long learning and foreign students.  It is a breathing space to allow the IoT to move more towards a higher research time and reduced teaching loads for existing and new staff.

 

The Review describes Irish tertiary education as being at a crossroad and that there is a perception that Irish tertiary education is not punching its weight.  While these views may have come as submissions to the Review group it is difficult to see how they can be defended.  When it is realised that the most  dynamic economy in the world is based solely on human resources and that this indicated the success of the existing structures, we are neither at a crossroads but fifteen years down a road of success, nor are we punching below our weight but much above it.

 

From a BMW point of view the Review is fundamentally flawed in that the Review group never visited the region.  Outside the Dublin metropolitan area they only visited Waterford IT, UCC, Tralee IT and University of Limerick.

The BMW region has only one of the seven universities in Ireland and five (with six major campuses) of the thirteen IoTs.  If third level education and research is to have an impact in the BMW region it can only happen in the IoTs.  Over the years the IoTs have blossomed from their original role as regional technical colleges offering sub-degree certificate and diploma courses in technical subjects to where they have become Institutes of Technology still delivering and expanding the sub degree courses of their original mission but now offering primary and higher degrees and becoming more and more involved in research.  Courses in humanities, arts and culture have been significantly developed in some of the IoTs.

 

The Reviews now recommends that the IoTs return to their original mission, an extraordinary recommendation given that flexibility and adaptation to changing circumstances is what the institutes have excelled at.  As drivers of the diverse local regions where they have been based the idea that one size fits all and that they should return to a mission defined in the third quarter of the last century has little merit.  For the BMW region these recommendations are disastrous.  The IoTs are to confine research to specific applied research funded by Enterprise Ireland but should be denied access to the major research funding for which they are now successfully compete.  Those IoTs with the right to award Ph.Ds should have that right rescinded.  Knowledge creation will be confined to the four universities in the Dublin metropolitan are, Cork, Limerick and Galway.  Only the application of knowledge imported from elsewhere will be allowed in the other locations.

 

It is my view that the OECD Review if adopted in full will make the goal of the IDA to attract 50% of Greenfield jobs into the BMW region virtually impossible to attain.  If the new identity slogan of the IDA – “Ireland, knowledge is in our nature” has a positive response abroad then potential clients will want to base where knowledge is both created and applied and no in the region where knowledge has to be imported.

 

I repeat:

If one wished to devise a way to permanently institutionalise a two speed economy in Ireland with the BMW region falling further and further behind the S and E region the best way to do so would be to implement in full the recent OECD Review of Higher Education in Ireland.