05 October 2010

The time for waiting is long past

One of the most enduring folk and rock anthems of the last century was Peter Seeger’s adaptation of the Book of Ecclesiastes, recast as ‘Turn! Turn! Turn!’ Interpreted by the Byrds, it proved a commercial and critical hit. Its lyrics have come to mind these past few days, as it strikes this writer that the time for publishing the strategy for higher education is surely nigh.

To everything (turn, turn, turn)
There is a season (turn, turn, turn)
And a time to every purpose, under Heaven
A time to build up, a time to break down…

Minister Coughlan has had the report of the Hunt Group on her desk for some months now, but in a wearying pattern of government long-fingering has yet to take action in any form on same.

Adding to the complexity of the situation is the countless other initiatives which are happening in the higher education space, without the benefit of the strategic vision for the tertiary sector which surely should be a guiding force in these developments. Thus, we have had the various smart economy announcements, the internationalisation strategy for Irish education, several collaborations announced between higher education institutions, and so on.

Meanwhile, our lecture theatres are creaking at the seams with higher than ever numbers attending third level, but with fewer resources available to meet the disparate needs of a hugely diverse student population.

As noted by Ferdinand von Prondzynski in The Irish Times this morning, we have had no shortage of leaks and speculation, but nothing more substantial or illuminating than early morning fog.

It’s high time that the Government published the heralded strategy; let the stakeholders, students, academics, industry, the country read and discuss it. And when that fateful day does arrive, let its implementation not be a mirror image of the famous OECD review; forgotten, but not gone.

27 September 2010

"Enough of this"

After a blogobreak of quite some months, it seems apposite that these online musings should resume on a day when higher education – at least tangentially – dominated the media headlines. Unfortunately, the coverage was not of a hue that would be desired less than one week after the government’s strategy for the internationalisation of Irish education was published. The choreography of the day is by now well-rehearsed, so there is no need to replay here any of the crucial scenes.

It does seem, however, short-sighted by Fine Gael to refuse a pairing to the Tánaiste on this occasion, especially when the presence of senior government ministers has proven so crucial in the past to education and trade missions. In equal measure, we could question what the government was attempting to do by suggesting that Mary Coughlan would be in the Dáil on Wednesday to answer questions about Fás and a host of other matters. If, as it seems, this trade expedition was in planning over the past 18 months, then surely it should have been possible to reschedule her time in the Dáil hot seat. Whatever their personal merits, it should not have fallen to a junior minister to answer those particular questions. On this – as on so many other topics – one cannot look past Seán O’Rourke’s interviews on the News at One with Enda Kenny and Batt O’Keeffe. His probing of the politicians – ‘Haven’t you gone a bit far?’ and ‘It looks like there’s a bit of a dodge going on’ – captured the frustration of the man and woman on the street.

Now that the Minister has decided that she is going to travel to the US after all, let us hope that the controversy does not follow her across the Atlantic. The Education Ireland brand is still being nurtured in international territories; it needs supportive action from all of our politicians and other stakeholders, if it is to thrive and survive.

14 May 2010

Important Voice Missing from Innovation Taskforce Implementation Group

The announcement earlier this week of the members of a high-level group to implement the report of the Innovation Taskforce has drawn mixed comments. Some see it as a sign that action will now be taken to deliver on the recommendations of the taskforce, while for others it is deemed a further delaying tactic. This latter opinion is bolstered it seems by the fact that six of the ten members of the implementation group (excluding the departments/agencies) were themselves members of the original taskforce.

For me, however, there is a more significant omission in terms of the composition of the group and that relates to the absence of any representative from the institutes of technology. Throughout the country, IoTs are drivers of innovation, supporters and enablers of high-potential start-ups (HPSUs). They have direct experience of developing an innovation ecosystem, working with entrepreneurs and leading applied research.

The scale of that experience was conveyed in a research and innovation yearbook published in December 2009 by Institutes of Technology Ireland:
• 300 collaborative research projects with industry
• 850+ entrepreneurs supported on Enterprise Platform Programme
• 250 spin-in incubation centre companies with 695 employees
• 16 Enterprise Ireland-funded Applied Research Enhancement centres
• 48 patents granted to spin-in companies

Institutes of technology also accounted for some 60 per cent of innovation voucher projects completed by HEIs according to figures published by Enterprise Ireland.

In the Midlands alone, AIT’s innovation and research centre (MIRC) and its enterprise programmes have supported 58 knowledge-based start-ups to date. Seven HPSUs participated in the most recent offering of its enterprise programme, while approx €1.5 million worth of collaborative research has taken place between AIT, MIRC and its enterprise programme clients. Eighty MIRC-coordinated innovation voucher research projects have been completed or are underway. An independent assessment conducted by Frontline Consultants on Enterprise Ireland’s Campus Incubation Programme showed the success of these regional innovation measures: MIRC’s net employment impact is 85 per cent higher and net GVA impact 21 per cent higher than respective averages for all campus incubation centres in the country.

The problem raised by the omission of an IoT representative is that this valuable experience of supporting innovation and implementing measures to create a knowledge-led society is lost to the high-level group. I have no qualms whatsoever with the other members of the group, each of whom I have no doubt will bring their considerable experience to bear on the implementation process. It is high time though to recognise the contribution of the institutes of technology and their role in the smart economy. Batt O’Keeffe should surely be aware of this.

29 April 2010

Croke Park Drama

Croke Park is becoming a central location in the national conversation about our public services, and now, about our higher education institutions. The Jones Road venue has certainly witnessed no shortage of high-octane emotions over the past century, and to continue the sporting metaphor, there is still much left to play for in terms of the reform agreement.

Tom Boland’s address at the Transforming Public Services conference this week offers some interesting insights into the possible future direction of tertiary education in this country. His remarks are reported extensively in today’s Irish Independent.

To some, his comments that mergers and amalgamations amongst third level colleges are imminent will seem like a statement of the patently obvious; particularly when compared with international circumstances. I happen to be in this camp.

One has to question the viability of 21 universities and IoTs (not to mention other HEIs, such as NCI, the colleges of education, etc.) for a population of 4.3 million. That equates to 200,000 people per institution. By comparison, in the UK there are approximately 470,000 people per institution.

An alternative perspective would hold that scale should not be a defining feature of how we evaluate our education system. And, certainly ‘largeness’ is an insufficient metric of quality. However, higher education should not be immune from the need for greater efficiency and obtaining critical mass has to be a consideration in how we fund resource-intensive programmes and research.

The challenge then for the higher education strategy group will be to balance the demands of genuinely accessible higher education and an education system that is sufficiently resourced and geared to deliver a world-class service.

20 April 2010

Challenges Facing EU Commissioner for Research

The April issue of Public Service Review: Science and Technology features some interesting reflections on the challenges facing the EU’s new Commissioner for Research and Innovation, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn.

From an Irish perspective, the former TD’s appointment to one of the most strategically important roles in Europe is significant. According to José Manuel Barroso, the Commissioner’s main priority is to take ‘a decisive step forward’ in building the European Research Area (ERA). Specific actions which will contribute to this include, he said, ‘strengthening intra-EU cooperation, pooling human and financial resources across the EU, and promoting the fifth freedom – the free movement of knowledge, ideas and researchers’.

In the article, some leading European academics and scientist give their take on the challenges that lie ahead, focusing in particular on policy issues to do with education, funding, gender equality, security and developing excellence in research. Some of their comments merit reproduction here:

‘[Another challenge is in] striking a good balance between industrial and frontier research and favouring key pillars of the European Research Area such as mobility, international cooperation, research infrastructures and the European Research Council.’
Luc van Dyck, secretary of the Initiative for Science in Europe

The steps Europe needs to take to position itself as best in the world for research:
‘Identify what the best conditions are for top fundamental research; in terms of research, goals and projects, Europe should not so much follow the example of other regions in the world, but set its own standards and goals; Europe should actively scout for [Europeans who work abroad] and find out what it takes to get them back.’
Anton Zeilenger, Austrian Academy of Science

‘Europe needs to actively involve 700,000 additional researchers, among them many women scientists. This is not only a matter of justice … but it is also one of scientific quality.’
Mineke Bosch, University of Groningen

The concerns raised by our European counterparts will resonate with many in this country. Ireland has lofty ambitions to become a Silicon Valley of Europe and is firmly positioning its national identity as a knowledge-based economy. Much more work and investment is required to deliver on these goals. While progress has been made, documents such as the forthcoming Strategic Review of Higher Education will tell much about Irish HEIs’ role in building a European Research Area.

A New Day for Education in the Midlands

Earlier today AIT signed a cooperation agreement with Co Offaly VEC, a development which represents a new chapter in the history of education in the Midlands. The agreement was witnessed by the Taoiseach, an indication of support for the initiative at the highest level.

Under the agreement both institutions will work together to develop FETAC Level 5 modules that will equip students to progress to third level. In a parallel move, a number of AIT’s part-time courses, as well as the first year of higher certificates will be delivered in Tullamore, Banagher, Kilcormack and Edenderry. Students will transfer to AIT to complete the second year of their course.

The modules and programmes to be delivered under the agreement will be in specialised high skill areas such as IT, science, healthcare, engineering and management. These are areas that have been highlighted by bodies such as Atlantic Corridor, the Midlands Gateway Chamber’s Skills Audit, and in various Expert Body reports as being of vital importance to the future success of our economy.

At the heart of the agreement is a recognition of the needs of learners in the Midlands and a desire to better serve our respective constituencies. It responds to our national ambition to be an innovation island, but more than that it supports a culture of lifelong learning.

The issue of support is a vital one in terms of our relationships with mature students and it is an aspect of the agreement that I am particularly proud of. The experience of the past few years has indicated the enormous contribution that mature students are making to our campuses. Their wisdom and real world-acquired skills have benefited the wider learner population. The cross-fertilisation of experience and youthful enthusiasm is producing higher quality graduates, graduates who will be better able to thrive and succeed in the world of employment.

Yet, we must do more to support, facilitate and encourage non-traditional students to consider educational opportunities. This is all the more urgent given the economic and social pressures that so many people now find themselves under. In this light, education not only offers hope; it re-energises and gives people the ability to regain control over their lives.

Alvin Toffler, the famous American writer and futurologist, has said that ‘the illiterate of the twenty-first century will not be those who cannot read and write, but those who cannot learn, unlearn and relearn.’ I believe that this cooperation agreement will be a means for people in Offaly and the Midlands to continue learning in new and imaginative ways. Here we have a creed as profound as the Three Rs; one suited to the needs of the current age.

The agreement is also significant in strengthening relationships between the Gateway towns of Athlone and Tullamore. Considerable progress has been made in developing the infrastructure, enterprise environment and quality of life proposition of the Midlands Gateway. The region is competing strongly for inward investment, as well as being an attractive location for indigenous industry. Central to its value proposition is an education and innovation support base that serves the needs of the local population and enables the area to compete on a national and international basis. Today’s agreement strengthens that offering.

14 April 2010

Deal or no deal?

Yesterday’s decision by the executive councils of Siptu and the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation (INMO) to offer alternative recommendations to their members in relation to the public service agreement leaves its chances of survival a matter of some conjecture.

Last night, Siptu’s Jack O’Connor said that the proposals represent the very best that can be achieved through negotiation. Ultimately, however, it will be down to the union’s membership to decide whether to accept or reject the Croke Park deal.

Earlier in the day, the INMO became the seventh public sector union to come out against the proposals, leaving the reject-support count at 7-4. Amongst the seven against are a number of unions representing staff working in higher education, including the TUI, Impact and Unite.

Specific measures relating to the institutes of technology and universities are contained in the appendix to the sectoral agreements. The IoT-related points are as follows:
• The review of the academic employment contract currently underway is to be completed by 31 August.
• An extra hour per week is to be added to the academic staff schedules, which is to be available to facilitate all educational activities in the institutes.
• Flexible delivery of new courses aimed at the unemployed.
• Implementation of redeployment schemes for academic, administrative, technical and support staff, within and between institutes and the wider public service.

(Interestingly, while redeployment is mentioned for academic staff within the sectoral agreement, there is no mention of how it will work for TUI members in the appendix dedicated to redeployment arrangements.)

Exhortations to be flexible, at an institutional and personal level, permeate the document. This would appear to be a sound principle to invoke, since flexibility is one of the virtues deemed necessary to recover from the current economic malaise. Our businesses must be flexible to changing market needs and our people flexible in their skill sets and competences. The difficulty however with flexibility is that it is not a cost-free charge card; we cannot simply wish it into being.

Reaching agreement without stand-offs and without inflicting further pain on wider society is unlikely without a shared vision of what we are trying to achieve and how we are going to do it. Right now, that is the last thing that people need from their higher education institutions.

30 March 2010

Innovation Vouchers – A Valuable Opportunity for Small Companies

Enterprise Ireland launch their latest call for innovation vouchers tomorrow, 1 April. Each voucher is worth €5,000 and allows small companies to contract a third level institution to undertake research to solve a business problem or identify new opportunities.

According to EI, the objective of the initiative is ‘to build links between Ireland’s public knowledge providers and small businesses and create a cultural shift in the small business community’s approach to innovation’.

AIT’s Midlands Innovation and Research Centre has been particularly active in promoting the scheme. Indeed, the institute is in the top three HEIs in terms of innovation voucher projects completed to date with 68 collaborative projects concluded.

Application can be made throughout the month of April. Anyone interested in learning more about the benefits of the scheme could do worse than read the experiences of previous innovation voucher recipients.

Back to Education Allowance Storm Brewing (or not?)

Anyone caring to take a walk around the campuses of Ireland’s third level institutions would be struck by the number of what is quaintly called ‘mature students’. ‘Matures’, as they’re often referred to, are those students who are over the age of 23. In the past number of years they have been signing up for higher education programmes in droves. This year’s CAO figures, for example, showed that one-in-four of the 71,843 applicants were in that category.

The word I hear back from our academics is that matures are making a profound contribution to the learning culture on campus. They obviously have a steadying influence on our younger students, many of whom are finding their feet in the world. More than that though, the sharing of experiences between today’s Web 2.0 generation and their somewhat older counterparts who have real life savvy, is benefiting one and all.

It would appear therefore that our sought-after learning society is becoming a reality, even if not under the precise conditions we might have envisaged when documents such as the HEA’s strategy on access in third level was published.

Many of this cohort find themselves in college having lost their jobs, due to the downturn in the economy. State support in the form of the Back to Education Allowance (BTEA) and the maintenance grant were therefore vital to making full-time study a viable option. In the 2010 Budget, however, while the Minister for Finance said that ‘protecting jobs and providing opportunities for those who are unemployed to return to work and avail of education is a priority for Government’, he introduced a change that will have precisely the opposite effect.

From now on, recipients of the BTEA will no longer be entitled to claim the maintenance grant. The Department of Finance estimates that this will yield €4 million in savings in 2010 and €35 million in a full year. Many of 18,000 mature students who have applied through the CAO are likely to be effected by this, some of whom are already undertaking Access programmes. Current students may also be impacted if they have to undertake a ‘new’ course in order to progress through the National Framework of Qualifications.

Amazingly, this appears to have remained beneath the radar of popular comment. It was raised with the Minister for Lifelong Learning, Seán Haughey, during the Aontas Adult Learners’ Festival, but in general there has scarcely been a whisper. Maybe it’s time to get Joe Duffy on the case!

24 March 2010

European Perspective on Irish Graduates

The European Commission’s recent paper on the efficiency and effectiveness of public spending on higher education offers an interesting addendum to the recent debate on the quality of Irish higher education.

According to the report, Irish graduates score positively both in terms of their numbers per head of population and with regard to the perceived quality of their qualifications. Looking at the numbers of Irish people with third level qualifications, it is unsurprising that with two-thirds of school leavers now entering higher education, that we would score highly here. In fact, Ireland tops the list with nearly 14 graduates per 1,000 inhabitants.

On the hot topic of employability – which after all sparked the grade inflation brouhaha – the authors are unequivocal. ‘Recruiters regard the Universities in Ireland and in the UK as providing highly employable graduates,’ they say.

One of the other interesting elements in the report is the comparative assessment of HEI efficiency. Their analysis showed that some countries seem to ‘specialise more in research than in the teaching part of tertiary education. This is the case of the Nordic countries, of Austria, of Belgium and the Netherlands. Others are more efficient in teaching (Ireland, France, the East European countries). The United Kingdom was found to be efficient on both accounts.’ Local knowledge would largely confirm this to be the case, particularly in institutes of technology, where the mission to teach was deemed to be the core responsibility. However, the inculcation of a new creed of teaching, research and innovation is undoubtedly going to alter the landscape in the coming years.

The report concludes with a number of policy recommendations, some of which deal with the issue of investment in higher education: ‘Spending increases, if they occur, have to be carefully managed and should go hand in hand with institutional reforms. From our analysis it becomes clear that better performing countries are not necessarily those where more resources are spent on higher education. It is efficient spending that matters. It follows that increased spending will be much more successful in output terms if it is efficiency enhancing.’

The issue of institutional reform, they write, should focus on the following points:
• promoting accountability of tertiary education institutions, with careful and fair evaluation ensured by independent bodies;
• increasing competition, by rising the institutions’ autonomy in what concerns staff policy, namely in its ability to hire and dismiss and to set wages;
• designing financial schemes that relate funding to the institutions’ performance in output terms, rather than relying in inputs used or in historical trends.

There is much to be absorbed here, particularly in light of the impending publication of the strategic review of Irish higher education and the increasingly scarce Exchequer resources. In the meantime, it is good at least to have some independent positive verification of the how our graduates are perceived.

23 March 2010

A Reshuffled Deck

So now we know; some elevations, side moves and swaps. The Taoiseach this afternoon announced his new cabinet with Education and Skills and the related portfolio of Enterprise, Trade and Innovation amongst those most dramatically reconfigured. The two principals with the greatest degree of input to the higher education sector – Batt O’Keeffe and Mary Coughlan – have alternated roles, but further consideration will have to be given to the new make-up of the departmental portfolios.

Perhaps one of the most surprising announcements is that responsibility for the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI) moves to Enterprise. While there is a logic to the move in terms of moving the commercialisation of research agenda centre stage, there may now be a danger of a disconnect with the third level sector itself.

In the Taoiseach’s own words, this reflects the focus of the Innovation Taskforce report, through a sharpened focus ensuring ‘a streamlined and focused programme of funding of research and development, aligned with the objectives of enterprise policy’.

Given the controversies that surrounded FÁS, it is perhaps unsurprising that the organisation has been dissected this afternoon. Responsibility for skills and training policy is being re-allocated to Education and Skills, ensuring, Mr Cowen said, that ‘the training activities of FÁS will therefore be aligned more closely with the further education and training activities of the VECs, the institutes of technology and programmes such as Youthreach’.

What difference will these changes make to the lives of our citizens and to the operation of the third level sector? Will discussion of the personalities involved overshadow the substance of the changes made?

It’s difficult to know at this juncture, although the position of higher education in the broader third level portfolio now appears to be more disjointed than before. Perhaps the appointment of one of the new junior ministers to a dedicated HE post would remedy the matter. We await the Taoiseach’s further pronouncements.

19 March 2010

Higher Education and the Irish Diaspora

St Patrick’s week offers an unparalleled annual opportunity to focus global attention on this small island. While there may be some misgivings over the dispersal of our government ministers to the four corners, in truth, for our senior politicians not to grasp the opportunity to represent Ireland in this positive fashion, would be a far greater dereliction of duty.

For the second year in a row, the Taoiseach met with President Obama in the White House, and there appears to be genuine warmth between the two men. Maybe it’s the Offaly connection, although I sense that Barack Obama is very much aware of the contribution which generations of Irish people have made to the US.

One of Brian Cowen’s duties, while in Washington was to launch the Ireland Homecoming Study Programme, which aims to encourage the descendents of Irish nationals and non-resident passport holders living outside the EU to return to Ireland for their higher education studies.

The programme is an initiative of Institutes of Technology Ireland, with eight IoTs participating: Athlone, Blanchardstown, Carlow, Cork, Dundalk, Galway/Mayo, Sligo and Waterford. It aims to attract over 500 students over the next three years and is expected to contribute an estimated €10m to the Irish economy.

The IHSP will offer tuition costs to qualifying students of up to 40 per cent less than the standard rate for non-EU students. The fee for the 2010/2011 intake will be €5,950. Students from overseas will be able to undertake undergraduate degree courses or shorter study courses.

This is, of course, just one part of Irish HEIs’ strategy to attract a greater cohort of international students; and indeed these days seem to be marked by a plethora of other policy and plan launches (more about these later) aimed at internationalising Irish education. What is encouraging, however, is the amount of hits showing up on Google for the launch. The coming months will tell a lot in terms of the success of the programme.

25 February 2010

Developing relationships with Saudi Arabia

The past century has seen the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia emerge from being an underdeveloped desert kingdom to becoming one of the wealthiest nations in the Middle East. The country sits on more than one-quarter of the world’s known oil reserves and is recognised as one of the Gulf states best equipped to drive forward a rapid rate of planned expansion.

In April last year, Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Mary Coughlan, led an Enterprise Ireland trade mission of 64 Irish companies and organisations to Saudi. Trade between the two countries has increased substantially in recent years. In 2009, Irish exports to the Kingdom were worth over €400 million and there are more than 120 Irish SMEs operating in the Middle Eastern country. Some months later, education minister, Batt O’Keeffe attended the opening of the King Abdullah University of Science and Technology in Jeddah, which has identified four key strategic research themes: resources, energy and environment; biosciences and bioengineering; materials science and engineering; and applied mathematics and computational science.

Also reflecting this strengthening relationship, the first Saudi Arabian embassy to Ireland opened its doors in September 2009. Speaking at the time, the new Ambassador, Abdulaziz Aldriss, said that he would “make every possible effort to enhance and develop this relationship and encourage trade and investment opportunities for the people in both countries.” Ambassador Aldriss visited AIT this week, accompanied by HRH Prince Turki Bin Nawaf Al Saud and other members of the Saudi diplomatic team.

The day proved a tremendous success in terms of enabling all parties to become familiar with one another and in building the personal relationships that are so central to international partnerships. The ambassador had an opportunity to visit some of AIT’s research and innovation facilities, the new engineering and informatics complex, as well as meet with the 25 Saudi students who have been attending AIT since September last year. The students who are undertaking full-time undergraduate programmes in engineering, science and business, have integrated remarkably well into campus life and especially into life in the Irish midlands.

Next week, accompanied by the presidents of GMIT and WIT, I will have the opportunity to continue discussions with our education partners in Riyadh. While we are still in the initial stages of building relationships with the Saudi ministry for higher education, the success of the ambassador’s visit during the week and the experiences of our initial cohort of full-time Saudi students augurs well for the future.

01 February 2010

Deich mbliana ag fás in Áth Luain

St Brigid’s Day 2000 was dominated by crisis talks in Northern Ireland to save the Executive from collapse. A report of the international decommissioning body had documented no progress by the IRA towards the decommissioning of weapons. The Irish government was pressing the paramilitaries for a commitment in this regard, while attempting to persuade Ulster Unionist Party (UUP) leader David Trimble not to resign as First Minister.

Ten years on, while the threat of guns has largely been removed from the streets of the North, the element of brinksmanship which has so long pervaded Ulster politics is alive and well. This evening, there are optimistic noises in the air that a solution can be found to the dispute on the devolution of policing and justice, parades, etc. Vox pops broadcast on radio over the past few days have indicated a growing level of frustration amongst the populace of the North with their political representatives. Focus on the important issues and get this economy working again was a dominant theme.

February the first that year was also the date on which I commenced my first term as president of AIT. I remember my feelings of apprehension and enthusiasm for the job, and the sense of anticipation for the work that lay ahead. Having spent several years previous in the Northern Ireland Hotel and Catering College, Portrush I was looking forward to settling into the Midlands and establishing a new network of friends here.

Writing this on the first day of a second ten-year term, it is hard to credit that an entire decade has passed since I arrived in Athlone. Some of the moments that linger longest in my memory from those years include the visit of President McAleese to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the institute’s foundation; the expansion of the institute’s infrastructure to feature the development of a new east campus, the construction of dedicated facilities for hospitality, tourism and leisure studies, and most recently, engineering and informatics. The sporting infrastructure too has benefited from considerable investment, and is now, on a par with the finest international facilities.

Institutional maturity has also been signified with the delegation of authority to award our own qualifications, with the authority to award doctorate degrees now pending. Similarly, the increasing internationalisation of the student body, the growth in research and innovation activity, and enhanced links with industry, are signs of a higher education institution that is proactively engaging with its many stakeholders and the wider community.

The coming decade will be no less challenging than the one just passed, while the current economic conditions underline the hard-sought balance between tightening resources and addressing greater societal needs.

Let’s hope that by February 2020 we will have witnessed more than incremental change in Northern Ireland and that AIT will continue to be a vibrant, progressive higher education institution.

The international contribution to Irish third level

The internationalisation agenda of Irish higher education has come under the spotlight in recent times. It is widely agreed that Ireland has underperformed in its recruitment of overseas students and efforts to promote Ireland Inc. have been noticeably haphazard.

While the international education sector contributes €900 million to the Irish economy each year, we attract less than 1% of the international student cohort. This compares very poorly with the UK which receives more than one-fifth of the world’s share, equivalent to 350,000 students. Similarly, Australian higher education institutions enrolled 200,000 overseas students in 2009, with Chinese and Indian learners comprising in excess of 40% of this cohort. By comparison, less than 6,000 students from these two countries were in Irish institutes of technology and universities in the same period.

In August last year, Minister Batt O’Keeffe announced that he was putting structures in place to develop a new strategy for attracting international students to Ireland. This has seen Enterprise Ireland taking responsibility for marketing and promoting the Education Ireland brand overseas. Education Ireland was first mooted in the Internationalisation of Irish Education Services report published in 2004, but precious little has happened in the interim.

The minister also announced the establishment of a High Level Group on International Education which met for the first time last week. A key issue in the future success of marketing Ireland Inc. is the engagement with immigration services. The Minister for Justice launched a review of the immigration regime for full-time non-EEA students last autumn. The outcome to this process will have a significant bearing on the work of the high level group.

A final word on our prospects for making this country a more attractive proposition for international students comes courtesy of Linda Kelly, Equality Officer with the Union of Students in Ireland:
‘The biggest endorsement for Ireland is to have international students who enjoy studying here, who have a positive experience here and who will recommend Ireland to friends in their home country. This cannot be achieved if higher education institutes and Government departments continue to see dollar signs when creating policy. Policy should and must be student centred if we have any hope of creating a sustainable international education system which can compete with other countries.’

26 January 2010

There's nothing backwards about institutes of technology, Mr Sutherland

Peter Sutherland’s extraordinary sideswipe at institutes of technology (IoTs) last week reveals an understanding of this vibrant sector of Irish higher education that is woefully ill-informed.

Speaking at the launch of the Undergraduate Awards of Ireland and Northern Ireland, Mr Sutherland said that he was opposed to the even distribution of resources between top universities and a “Ballygobackwards RTC”. Such linguistic mud-slinging does little to illuminate the richness of Irish tertiary education and is an undisguised insult to the hundreds of thousands of learners who attend and have attended IoTs.

For the record, there is nothing backward about the undergraduate and postgraduate programmes offered by the country’s fourteen institutes of technology; a fact reflected in the fact that in September 2009 more students accepted a college place in IoTs than in universities. Progression rates from second to third level education have increased dramatically over the past two decades, with two-thirds of Leaving Certificate students now choosing to go to college. This is in large part attributable to the premium placed by institutes of technology on offering accessible third-level education founded on favourable staff-student ratios, work placements and a progressive ladder system of qualifications.

There is nothing backward about the initiatives undertaken by the institutes to increase the number of mature students and those from economically disadvantaged backgrounds accessing third level. In these economically turbulent times, IoTs are playing a crucial role in upskilling the workforce, a task deemed essential to the restoration of the country’s fortunes. In 2008, more than 4,800 new entrants to institutes of technology were classified as mature students or were from the semi- and unskilled manual worker group and non-manual worker group. This was one-fifth greater than the number of comparable new entrants to universities.

Nor indeed is there anything remotely backward about the IoTs’ investment in research and innovation, which has exceeded €273million since 2004. This has helped Ireland’s march towards becoming an innovation island and in its focus on applied research is a powerful boost to indigenous and multinational companies in key target areas such as ICT, biopharma, medical technologies and creative industries. Fourteen incubation centres exist on IoT campuses, providing a support structure for entrepreneurs and high-potential start-up companies.

I would like to invite Mr Sutherland to visit Athlone Institute of Technology – or indeed any other institute campus – so that he can see at first hand the nature of the work undertaken in Ireland’s IoTs. He might be surprised to learn, for example, in Athlone’s case that one-in-ten of our full-time undergraduate students come from outside Ireland, or that we have collaborative agreements with some of the leading research universities in the world, including GeorgiaTech, Bharati Vidyapeeth University in India and the Institute of Software, Chinese Academy of Sciences. Such partnerships give short shrift to any views of IoTs as parochial or insular.

He is correct, however, in stating that Ireland needs “a level of general excellence in education if we are to compete in the modern world”. What Mr Sutherland has failed to realise though is that the diversity of learner and employer needs, demands a higher education system which recognises the complementary contributions of institutes of technology and universities. Both need to be adequately funded and are duly accountable to the tax-payer for how that money is invested. Excellence is not a virtue exclusive to rarefied campuses, the achievements of IoT students, graduates and researchers over four decades are testament to that.

Mr Sutherland may have associated institutes of technology with the negative stereotype of Ballygobackwards, but in truth it is his own remark that belongs in the farcical realm of Ballymagash.

Why another blog about higher education?

Higher education is one of the most crucial sectors of activity in Ireland at present. Its role as a driver of the knowledge economy has been repeatedly highlighted, and the desired upskilling of the work force is dependent upon increasing numbers obtaining higher education qualifications.

Athlone Institute of Technology has a particularly important role to play in the midlands of Ireland. The sole higher education institution in the region, it is not only an important access point to tertiary education for people, but a vibrant collaborator with industry, and a driver of research and innovation activity.

This blog will hopefully highlight some of the work undertaken by the institute, as well as providing a forum to comment on wider matters to do with higher education, and indeed society in general.

Any blog is only as good as the conversation it generates, so in that spirit I hope it is the starting point for many discussions and debates.