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Provost's Address to the Institute of Directors

IOD Business Breakfast
26 April 2012

'The Future of Third Level Education in Ireland and the Skills required by the Irish economy'

Good morning, and thank you for inviting me here today. I'm most grateful for the opportunity you have given me to speak on this crucial issue.

The title of this morning's talk is not my own, though I am of course happy to speak on it. Nonetheless I want to start by unpacking some of the assumptions in this title – ‘The Future of Third Level Education in Ireland, and the Skills required by the Irish Economy’.

I must stress that I think this an excellent title – if I didn't I wouldn't have agreed to speak to it – and when I say I want to unpack some of the assumptions, it's because I think it's useful for all of us – certainly for me – to take a step back and debate the ideas implied by the title.

So: ‘The Future of Third Level Education in Ireland and the Skills required by the Irish Economy’.

As I see it, four assumptions have gone into creating this title:

  • First, there's the assumption that all of a student's education, at third level, will actually be in Ireland;
  • Second, there may be the assumption that the goal of third level education generally is to fill the skills gaps that arise in the economy;
  • Third, the specific assumption that the main purpose of third level education in Ireland is to produce graduates to grow the Irish economy;
  • And fourth, there's the assumption that ‘the Irish economy’ is synonymous with Ireland; that when we talk about what's good for the economy, we mean what's good for the country.

I'd like to address each of these assumptions in turn. I will then turn to the future of third level education and the type of education Trinity seeks to deliver.

So the first assumption - that a student's education, at third level, will all be in Ireland.

When we talk about ‘third level education in Ireland’, we create the impression of students spending all their college years in Ireland, perhaps in one institution. This is not how I think of it. In Trinity – and I should say now that I can only speak for Trinity, not for the sector – well, in Trinity we seek to deliver education that makes our students global in their perspective.

This means that, ideally, they will not spend all their college years on our Dublin campus. At the moment 1 in 20 students do a semester abroad, most of them language students on Erasmus. One of the goals of my Provostship is to improve that figure. I'd like to see at least half of our undergraduate students spend time abroad.

Trinity already thinks globally in terms of staff recruitment - half of Trinity's academic staff are born outside of Ireland. Setting up more student exchange programmes with our peer-institutions abroad creates a dynamic flow with our students going abroad and foreign students coming here.

But if the campus is to become more cosmopolitan and reflective of diverse experience, we also want more international students enrolling for the full Trinity education.

We recently created an entirely new post, the Vice-Provost for Global Relations, with the express aim of improving our messaging abroad and focussing global interest on Trinity. By creating such a post we are seeking to coordinate our activities towards the core aim of asserting Trinity's presence on the world stage – playing for Ireland on the world stage, if you like.

So rather than talking about ‘third level education in Ireland’, let's talk about ‘global third level education’ provided by Irish universities.

The next assumption is that the goal of third level education generally is to fill the skills gaps in an economy.

I am wary of any talk of ‘skills gaps’ because by the time skills gaps appear, causing problems within the economy, it's already too late. As educators – and probably for economists too though it's not my place to say - we need to be thinking about tomorrow, not reacting to today. Or put it another way, we should be offering an education flexible enough to adapt to skills gaps of the future.

And the key question we need to ask for this and for the next assumption is: where do my responsibilities lie as the head of a university? My answer is that my primary responsibility is to my students, not to the economy. Yes, I want Trinity students to drive the economy and innovate but my first responsibility is to ensure that our students - many of them of course not Irish - get a great education that allows them to lead a rewarding life and fulfil their potential.

Leading a fulfilling life involves, of course, finding fulfilling work. But does finding jobs equate to filling the skills gap? It can do, for a while, but as we all know, many skills gaps are temporary. Today, technology moves fast and almost no-one has the same job for life. It would be irresponsible of me if I were to focus students on acquiring skills that may become redundant after a few years.

Rather than specific skills sets to meet specific gaps, we want to train students in critical thinking, flexibility, and creativity to ready them for the volatile nature of the contemporary job market.

That is what's most beneficial for them - and incidentally for the economy. A ‘knowledge economy’, a society that lives by its wits, so to speak, and not through low labour rates or the exploitation of natural resources, needs such flexible, decisive, and entrepreneurial people.

I'll turn now to the next assumption - that third level education in Ireland should produce students to grow the Irish economy.

Well, my position vis-à-vis the last assumption also holds here – my responsibility is to my students, not to the Irish economy. Most often these interests are aligned but sometimes they are not and that creates tension – often, I would submit, a useful tension.

First – and this may be the elephant in the room - many of our graduates are not going to be working in Ireland, because there are no jobs for them here. I recently attended a graduation ceremony for nurses. The HSE isn't hiring so many are going to the UK, where they have jobs waiting for them. It takes several hundred thousands of euro to educate someone to third level and some see that as money walking out of our economy.

To this I would say:

  • First, they're our citizens, and they deserve this education. As a true republic, affording our citizens educational opportunity can't be left to others;
  • Second, they're going to emigrate anyway. The alternative to sending out well-educated graduates is to send low-skilled people as in the past cycles of emigration. Is this what we want for our young people? Is it what many of you, who are parents, would want?

Any talk about students required to ‘service’ the Irish economy is dubious. Irish people have a mobile mentality – they move around, and students will stay in Ireland if there are opportunities for them here. It’s about opportunities: they will stay for opportunities. They will return for opportunities, as they did during the boom, because the pull to home is always strong.

An ideal situation is one where Irish graduates go abroad for a time and then return – and perhaps go abroad again. Meanwhile, international graduates come to Ireland to work. Ireland is part of the world economy where the free flow of people is a positive thing. Maybe we should acknowledge the reality. We should rephrase the question and talk about the global economy and educate to give our young people opportunities to succeed in that.

I know that emigration stirs emotions in this country, for understandable, historic reasons, but emigration has changed. It is not only that travel and communications have been revolutionised, so that someone living in Boston is no longer as distant as they were fifty years ago; it is also that companies and corporations now think globally. They uproot to the places that suit them. The international young around Grand Canal Dock probably had no specific desire, most of them, to come to Dublin. They came because Google is here.

Our students are not being educated for the Irish economy specifically, just as Oxford students are not being educated for the UK economy, or Harvard students for the Massachusetts economy. Instead of thinking in terms of this island, we should think globally.

I will turn now to the final assumption: that the Irish economy is synonymous with Ireland – that what's good for the economy is good for the country.

I am not here to downplay the importance of a flourishing economy. It is central to any country. Citizens cannot lead fulfilling lives nor can countries develop without a strong economy.

The role of universities in growing the economy has always been crucial, but as we develop into a knowledge economy, it has become even more so. The connection between high-tech companies, university research, and excellent graduates becomes more important with every passing year. Our graduates play a direct role in making this succeed, and must continue to do so.

But more is required. Does a social worker grow the economy? No. Is he or she necessary? Certainly. What about a historian, or a linguist? Or an actor, or a translator?

In Trinity, our primary purpose is to grow knowledge and to educate, to contribute to the public good in the broadest sense, accepting that not all knowledge is lucrative, nor in the strictly commercial sense, economically viable.

We want our students to feel something of the intellectual hunger which so animated the great scholars of the past – to feel it however briefly - not to be constantly thinking in terms of commercialisation. And in terms of servicing a knowledge economy, we know which should always be ahead of demand – creating demand, not just meeting it.

So that's my unpacking of the assumptions in this title. Allow me to recap so far:

  • third level education should be international and not confined to one institution, one campus, and one nationality. We seek a dynamic global exchange of people and ideas;
  • The goal of a Trinity education is not to fill particular skills gaps but to produce graduates who can adapt to the volatile nature of the contemporary job market, and are able to ultimately create their own employment;
  • Instead of educating students for the Irish market, we think globally – to form global minds;
  • And finally we see our mission as educating not workers for the economy, but citizens for society.
  • Having tested these assumptions, we can now ask: what is the future of third level education in this country, and how can we best educate students to fulfil their potential and to benefit society?

    When we talk about ‘the future of third level education in Ireland’, the issue of rankings, and the related issue of funding, immediately arise. I wish they didn't, but historically Ireland has rightly been proud of its educational standards, and the future of third level in Ireland depends on universities regaining their positions in the global rankings.

    As you all know there are unfortunately no Irish universities in the top 100. It's not that Trinity or UCD or UCC or whatever other Irish universities have suddenly started performing badly and have allowed their standards to slip. Far from it. It's that other better-funded universities are going faster, particularly in Asia.

    A word on the rankings. I know that some people think too much significance is placed on rankings and that we should have our own codes of excellence. All I can say is, first, that the rankings use many different metrics and if you check out the top twenty, you will probably agree that they are getting it about right.

    Second, the rankings are what everyone goes on internationally. When students and staff on the other side of the world are trying to decide where to go, they don't have time to ascertain the subtleties of our system; they just look at the rankings.

    Improving our position in the rankings will require finance.

    So how to increase funding to higher education? Well, my position on this has been reported fairly widely in the media so I won't go into it at length this morning.

    I would just say this: Ireland's spend per student is below the OECD average. The proportion of funding from private sources is also below the OECD average. We do not now employ enough academic staff, by international standards, for the number of students we have. Global competition is not static. Investments made through private fees and public funds in many countries are greatly outpacing us.

    For Ireland to succeed as an education hub, we have to bring more investment into the system – we need to think strategically about financing. We should look flexibly at all the options, including having a graded or ‘ramped’ system of grants available for those in need. This could be funded through fees. Another scheme used profitably in many countries is ‘Dual Track’ funding.

    That's all I'm going to say about funding here. But it's important I say it because there is little future for third level education in Ireland unless there is some game-changing about how universities are financed.

    Allow me now, in this final part of my talk, to look at the Trinity education.

    You will have taken, from what I've said so far, the general idea that Trinity doesn't favour an education that is too narrow or skills-based.

    Of course our ideas of education have evolved over time. But just over a decade ago, the then Board of Trinity approved a policy which set out the nine agreed attributes of the TCD graduate.These attributes are:

    • articulacy;
    • literacy;
    • numeracy;
    • inquisitiveness;
    • analytical ability;
    • adaptability;
    • breadth of reading;
    • ethical responsibility;
    • and international outlook.

    These are general attributes designed to produce the mindset which can creatively respond to diverse situations.

    How do we go about instilling these attributes in our students? Our tried and tested methods include:

    • Students undertaking original research alongside professors;
    • Benefitting from a broad-based interdisciplinary syllabus;
    • Developing critical thinking;
    • Honing excellent communication skills;
    • and participating in extra-curricular activities.

    This way of educating goes back a long way.

    Equally the emphasis on good communication skills and on extra-curricular also goes back very far. The two College debating societies, the Phil and the Hist, were founded in 1683 and 1747 respectively and are often cited as ‘the oldest student undergraduate societies in the world'. The Cricket Club and the Boat Club were founded in 1835 and 1836; the Football Club – which actually plays rugby football – was founded in 1854 and again is cited as the world’s oldest documented football club.

    In many countries around the world – in Asia in particular – they are investing now to create universities that deliver the kind of research-based education bolstered by extra-curricular activities that we have favoured for centuries.

    And what is fascinating to me is that this time-honoured method of teaching remains one favoured by today’s employers.

    Just a few months ago, David Broderick, who is in charge of graduate placement at IBEC noted that: 'What employers are looking for is someone who stands out from the crowd – someone who demonstrates organisational ability through clubs and societies.'

    We are secure in the kind of education we offer because we see the great results in our students, but it is of course most reassuring to find that employers are backing us up.

    All of this gives us confidence to continue investing in and strengthening our educational model. But I don't want to give the impression that we are stuck in our traditions, or that we support this type of education simply because it is time-honoured. Far from it. We are constantly evolving, and our capacity to evolve is I think built into at least three of our attributes – it is part of ‘adaptability’, of ‘inquisitiveness’, and of ‘international outlook’.

    Since I was a Trinity undergraduate in the 1980s, there has been one great evolution – or revolution - and that's the recent emphasis on creativity, entrepreneurship, and innovation.

    Innovation is about encouraging staff and students to use their research to directly grow the economy and serve society. It began, of course, in the United States and it is part of 'our international outlook' that we sought to transplant it here.

    Initiatives such as the TCD-UCD Innovation Academy and the Entrepreneurship Programme run by Trinity Research and Innovation have really helped develop innovation. Last year alone, there were seven new campus spin-outs. This is a crucial growth area for Trinity and for other Irish universities.

    So Trinity is not standing still. We are constantly moving forward but we are evolving from a place of strength and tradition. This helps us to withstand adopting ephemeral solutions to passing problems.

    Looking at these nine attributes, and at the five tried and tested education methods through which we seek to instil these attributes, I am confident that they will produce graduates who are up for anything and who will surmount future difficulties and seize future opportunities in ways that we cannot even begin to imagine.

    And to return to the title - although I've been speaking against the assumption that third level should service the Irish economy, let me say that I believe sincerely that the best way Trinity can play its part in economic and social regeneration is to educate the bright and ambitious young people who come to us, as graduates with these attributes, educated through these methods - and I hope I have managed to convince you of this.

    Perhaps then the title of my talk should be 'The future of university education for young Irish people and what they need to succeed'.

    I'm now greatly looking forward to Marian Corcoran of Accenture's talk and to the discussion that will follow.

    Thank you very much for listening.

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