TCD Provost Speaks at MacGill Summer School on Investment in Education

Posted on: 27 July 2007

Extracts from the speech given by Dr John Hegarty, Provost, Trinity College Dublin at the MacGill Summer School, the theme of which was ‘Government Priorities for the next Five Years’. The TCD Provost spoke on the session concerning ‘Investing in Education’ as reported in The Irish Times.

Although Ireland’s economic success has been the result of many factors, it is now generally recognised that education has been the most pivotal. A number of key educational policy milestones leveraged this economic success, such as the introduction of free second-level education in the 1960s, the expansion of the third level sector from the 1970s, the special skills initiatives funded by the government to address the particular needs of the information technology sector in the 1980s, and from the 1990s onwards, increasing emphasis was placed on broadening access at the third level to hitherto excluded disadvantaged young people.

The Story from the late Nineties

One of the more critical landmark shifts in policy came in the late 1990s when investment by the government in research experienced a quantum leap, much of it in the university sector and involving collaboration within and between institutions and between institutions and industry. The National Development Plan 2000-2006, principally through PRTLI (Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions) and SFI (Science Foundation Ireland) investments, devoted some €2.5 billion to Higher Education research. From this point on, the universities, in particular, began to develop the characteristics of leading universities in other countries – a balance between education and research and between undergraduate and postgraduate education – that have a proven and fundamental long-term impact on the welfare of those countries. It is important to note this link, and we ignore it at our peril. Universities, with this profile, I would contend, are at the heart of the transition to a new Ireland.

Looking to the Future

Looking to the future, the country faces new challenges. The first and most obvious is the sustainability of our success in the context of intense global competition. We are at one with the UK, US, Sweden and Switzerland in contending with newly-developing major societies like China and India. In the past, cheap labour and a growing skills base served us well. Continued success in a new knowledge society will depend more critically than ever before on the creativity, imagination, and ideas of our people, and on the creation, transmission and best use of new knowledge. This is the very stuff of education, and more particularly of Higher Education. There is no escaping the fact now that to survive at this level Ireland must be as good as its new peer-countries. Our Higher Education institutions must be able to compare favourably with their institutions. Most importantly, Ireland’s universities must be able to compete with their best universities as the international benchmarks become the norm. A whole new challenge awaits Higher Education and especially our universities.

The system of universities, institutes of technology and other providers will have to deliver on all of the needs of Irish society – lifelong learning, including non-traditional students, and full access to those still suffering disadvantage. Regional development will have to be a focus. World class research will have to be produced with an increase in PhD numbers; the new knowledge from scholarship and research will have to be put to good use in industry, services, and public policy – all contributing to the development of a civil and wise society, a society of which we may be proud. No one institution can deliver all the complex needs to be addressed, hence the need for diversity of mission. Each institution should decide its own distinctive mix of activities based on its history, strengths, and location.

It is a very positive sign that the significance of the role of Higher Education to Ireland, and especially the growing importance of postgraduate education, was reflected in the 2005 budget speech of the Minister for Finance. Minister Cowan announced funding to enable higher education institutions to adapt to changing conditions – the Strategic Innovation Fund under the remit of the Minister for Education, Mary Hanafin. It was also heartening last year to hear of the new Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation (SSTI) 2006-2013. Under this initiative, some €5 billion was suggested for research in Higher Education. The strategy also articulates a very specific vision for university-based research. That vision is centred around the building up of world-class research teams, the doubling of PhDs, and the transfer of the knowledge generated for social and economic progress.

Role of the University

The University is a very unique institution in today’s world since it embodies both education and research in a holistic way. The great universities of the world have always been powerhouses of learning and knowledge creation. The Irish monasteries were such powerhouses in their own way. Today this intimate combination of learning and the exploration of new knowledge through research within a living community is not just at the heart of culture, it is the driving force of the world economy. So it is for modern Ireland. This knowledge can transform society by creating and sustaining new enterprises and jobs. Student learning at all levels is precisely about the exploration of knowledge -of existing domains in the case of undergraduate students and of new knowledge in the case of postgraduate research students. In a university, research enriches education and vice versa. I should point out that research can be done without education and education can be delivered without research. But it is the combination of the two elements in a powerful university that resources both well – recognising their synergy – that Ireland needs. Ireland’s universities must be as good as the best in its peer group of countries. Nothing less suffices in today’s competitive global environment.

Comparisons between Universities Globally

So how do Ireland’s universities compare with those universities? There are some indicators. For example, there are a number of international university league tables involving Ireland’s universities for the first time. While you might argue about the basis of the tables, you cannot deny their existence or their impact. They are watched closely by the huge number of international students interested in studying abroad, and even Irish students who are increasingly looking to universities overseas for a good education. They are also monitored by our potential academic staff and by international business leaders. In the world university rankings compiled by the Times Higher Education Supplement in 2006, only one Irish university featured in the top 200. This surely must be a worry. In separate rankings compiled by the Shanghai Jiao Tong University in China, no Irish university featured in the top 200. Both rankings have different criteria but what is evident is that the widely accepted best universities in the world feature at the top of both.

To demonstrate a more meaningful comparison with universities in other countries, I have selected three European universities for which comparable data is available from the Royal Irish Academy Study, ‘Cumhacht Feasa’ 2004. They do not include the obvious universities like Oxford and Cambridge who are in the top 10 by any ranking but which unfortunately are far outside our league of resources. The universities rank close to the Irish university in the Times Higher Education Supplement.

Comparison of leading European Universities





Irish University

THES Rank 2004

(in Europe)





Student Numbers


12, 626

18, 347

16, 493

12, 492

Teaching Staff


1, 926

2, 430

2, 576


Operating Budget

Per Student


(Ó ‘ 000)





Student/Staff Ratio





Source: Royal Irish Academy Report on Higher Education: Cumhacht Feasa

The table shows total student and staff numbers, student staff ratios and budgets for Edinburgh and Copenhagen Universities, the ETH in Zurich, and the Irish university. The most striking feature of the comparison is the student/staff ratio. The ratios of staff to students is almost twice that in the Irish university sample, a rather worrying statistic. This holds true across the Irish university system. It translates into much higher levels of investment per student than Ireland is currently providing.

Why is the student/staff ratio so important? A low ratio means a greater personal interaction between staff and student with learning in both directions and more time for high-quality research involving students to PhD level. This translates into the ability to achieve excellence which in turn attracts the best academic minds from across the world as teacher/scholars. World class teacher/scholars, in turn, create a better student learning experience and so on in an ever-improving cycle. One can argue about what is an optimum student/staff ratio but the average in Irish universities is certainly far from optimal.

It is fair to say that the Irish universities are performing superbly relative to the resources available to them – but that resource level is far out of line with the good universities internationally.

What do we do?

We must recognise the fact that the countries whose peers we aim to be are in a different situation to us; they have decades – if not centuries – of economic success and associated infrastructural and social spending behind them. The foundations of Ireland’s success are far less deep, less stable and more recent. Unfortunately, we have to catch up in a much more compressed time frame than we might like. What we need is not tinkering around the edges but a quantum shift.

How are Universities responding?

Firstly, I would like to say that my colleagues in the university sector really do appreciate the role that the universities must play to sustain and develop a successful economy and civil society. They are fully aware that universities must be creative with the curriculum, responding to demand, yet balancing short-term and long-term needs. The style of teaching and learning must evolve, balancing again the intensely personal nature of learning with the power of technology to deliver information in new ways. They also understand that they will be key to delivering the national goals of doubling PhD numbers. They are committed to ensuring that new knowledge is used well for the benefit of society through technology transfer, involvement in policy formation and engagement in public debate.

All institutions are undergoing internal change in terms of organisation and management – as you might expect, given the change in the environment. These shifts in institutional culture are not without controversy! We need to reconnect disciplines in new ways to counter the fragmentation that has occurred over several generations. We also need to manage our affairs well. Good management is often seen as anathema in an academic community. Good management, however, empowers the university to focus on its intellectual mission with minimum bureaucracy. Structures must continually change to suit the needs and complexities of the time.

Universities recognise that the quality of performance in all areas has to be benchmarked internationally rather than nationally, but the level of investment that they need to make is vastly greater than the resources currently available to them.

Budgets – going backwards will not produce a quantum shift

My colleagues and I are painfully aware that while investment in research from public funds has been phenomenal, this investment only covers the marginal costs of the research: the core academic staff, all aspects of teaching and learning, and the infrastructure that supports both teaching and research are largely paid for from the annual government allocation to the universities. Ironically, the investment in the core operation of teaching and learning and in the infrastructural fabric of the universities has been going in the opposite direction to that of research in recent years. Taken in real terms, the budget for the Irish universities has been cut for several years in a row and has remained static over the last two years. It is estimated that to restore the universities in real terms to where they were a decade ago would require some €120 million per annum. This figure does not take account of the vastly increased complexity of today’s university and the need to be internationally competitive as outlined. Similarly, playing catch-up in undergraduate facilities we estimate to cost in the region of €1.7 billion.

In financial terms, therefore, there is a scale of investment required which is significantly beyond the scope of what has been envisaged in the recently launched National Development Plan. There is a serious risk that even as research funding has increased, the underlying fabric of the universities may not be able to sustain it. This is a serious disconnect in overall funding policy.

Quantum Policy Leap Needed

We need a huge leap of imagination to grasp the scale of our needs; it takes imagination to shape the future. As Henry Ford said, the automobile would never have been developed in a society whose vision was limited to wanting faster horses….

I believe that the country now needs the new government to recognise the new and more challenging role that its universities must play. An overarching strategic vision and policy for all of Higher Education are necessary which addresses each of the elements in a holistic, and not a piecemeal way. Research, teaching and learning, knowledge transfer, and the interface with society, cannot be pursued in isolation from one another. Neither can the different types of institutions be considered under separate policies.

The policy should state firmly what level of investment would make the universities internationally competitive with some of the best in the world. Following from this, a fundamental review is necessary to determine how much of this investment can be afforded from public funds, and how much should be contributed by those most to gain – the students.

Grasping the Funding Nettle

I do not see any inclination on the part of the government to meet this overall need through public funding alone. If this is the case the clear issue to be addressed is the private contribution – whether it be termed “fees” or not. It is noteworthy in this context to see how Tony Blair addressed the deep concern about the competitiveness of the universities in his country. This was through a new partnership between the student and the state via top-up fees. The complementarity of public/personal investment is releasing very significant resources for universities which are by and large already better funded than Irish universities. For a university of 10,000 students, this new policy could generate an additional €40m income!

Other sources of funding must be considered as part of the overall policy. Recruitment of non-EU students is good for education and generates income through fees. However, the international market is very competitive and care must be taken to deliver high-quality education to these students – and to charge enough so that they are not a drain on existing tight funding.

Philanthropy is a potentially new source of funding given the current wealth in Ireland. Ironically, it is clear that philanthropists will only give to excellence – even if that means giving to institutions in other countries. If our institutions are not performing at a world class level, they will get little sympathy from the philanthropic world. Nor do philanthropists see it as their role to substitute for public funding in the situation where the state has reserved to itself the right to control the funding of universities. Nevertheless, the cause of philanthropy in Ireland would be greatly helped by a clear public policy on higher education and by providing clear incentives for giving.

I will sum up by making reference to Charles Handy’s book, The Age of Unreason.

“The future is not inevitable. We can influence it if we know what we want it to be. We can and should be in charge of our destinies in a time of change”

I have attempted to illustrate today that the leaders of Ireland’s universities have a clear sense of direction and a perspicacity as to what needs to be done to ensure that our universities play a full role in building a cultured, sustainable, progressive Ireland. It requires that we maintain a strong outward focus as befits a cosmopolitan trading nation. It requires that we see ourselves as part of a global ecosystem in which there is strong competition for intellectual capital and that we benchmark ourselves against some of the best in that ecosystem. It requires that we embrace change and the consequences. It requires that we are realistic about the scale of resources that achieving excellence requires.

We have arguably made this type of big-scale shift twice before in the last century. One was the introduction of universal free secondary education and the second was the introduction of a progressive tax regime. Both were spectacular successes. The time for an equally big and brave step for Third Level Education is …NOW.

Click below for Irish Times report:

Provost, dr john hegarty