Education in Ireland - world class rankings or a world class system?

Shaping the future of higher education

16 June 2009

The future shape of higher education in Ireland was the subject of an international colloquium held in Dublin last week, hosted by Dublin Institute of Technology (DIT). The participants included Irish and international experts with differing perspectives on higher education who came together to discuss how Irish higher education should be positioned to maximise its contribution to social and economic development. The participants in the day-long event included heads of Irish universities and institutes of technology; senior civil servants; economists and representatives from industry and commerce; state funding agencies and local government. International participants included representatives of OECD and leaders in higher education in Britain, Spain and Finland.

Professor Ellen Hazelkorn, Director of Research and Enterprise at DIT, who organised the colloquium, said “Our aim in coming together was to engage in an exchange of ideas about the interrelationship between education, research and innovation. The conversation is well-timed, coinciding as it does with a serious deterioration in the state’s finances, a high-level national review of higher education, and the growing attention given to global rankings. It provided an opportunity to look at the experiences of others and to consider what higher education could be in Ireland and whether greater benefits can be derived from building individual world-class institutions or should we focus on creating a world-class system of higher education.”

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Professor Ellen Hazelkorn, Director of Research and Enterprise at DIT,
  who spoke about the characteristics of a world-class system
  of higher education, rather than worldclass institutions.

The first speaker on the day was Mr. Tom Boland, Chief Executive of the Higher Education Authority who started the debate by setting the scene in the Irish context. Speaking in a personal capacity, Mr. Boland said it was refreshing to be part of a discussion about higher education systems rather than institutions. “System development will require a greater emphasis into the future on collaboration, consolidation and coherence so that we can harness national expertise in particular disciplines and build up the capacity and quality of the entire higher education system. It is only in this way that the Irish higher education system can develop the critical mass, the concentration of expertise and the shrewd use of resources necessary to succeed domestically and internationally,” he said. Widening his focus to the entire education system, he concluded his remarks by expressing concern about the lack of coherence in the system as a whole. He said that a coherent and comprehensive higher education system is, in my view a necessary step to future prosperity, but it is not sufficient.” He said there was an urgent need of much greater coherence between second and third level education to ensure that students starting third level have already developed the skills to think for themselves and do not need to be “spoon fed”.

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Mr. Tom Boland, Chief Executive of the HEA who gave
the opening address to the colloquium, outlining the
Irish context of higher education

In the session that followed, chaired by Dr. Michael Murphy, President of University College Cork, speakers provided an international context for the debate. Emeritus Professor John Goddard, who was formerly Deputy Vice Chancellor in Newcastle University, spoke in his capacity as academic leader of the OECD project on globally competitive and locally engaged higher education institutions; and Dr. Jaana Puukka, OECD/IMHE analyst, spoke about Higher Education in Cities and Regions, an OECD project which she is leading. The afternoon sessions considered the lessons for Ireland, and examined what the characteristics of a world-class system might be.

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Dr. Michael Murphy, President of UCC, chairing the session
on the international experience of HEIs working together

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Professor John Goddard, academic leader of the OECD
project on globally competitive and locally engaged HEIs

Thanking the participants, Professor Hazelkorn said she hoped the discussion that had started at the colloquium could continue in other fora, and she proposed that an abridged form of transcriptions from the proceedings could be compiled for publication and circulation to a wider audience.

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Professor John Coolahan, Emeritus Professor of Education,
NUI Maynooth, who participated in the discussion

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Mr. John Tierney, Dublin City Manager;
Dr. Jaana Puukka, OECD/IMHE analyst and
leader of OECD work on ‘HE in Cities and Regions’;
Dr. Maria Hinfelaar, President of Limerick Institute of Technology;
and Mr. Frank Turpin, Corporate and Government Affairs Manager, Intel Ireland

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