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.

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