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.