Investing in Higher Education will Reap Rewards – but who should fund it?

Press Release from IUA Symposium ‘21st Century Universities: Performance and Sustainability’ 

Dublin, September 29th, 2014 − A major International Symposium to be held in Dublin today, will throw the spotlight on a growing crisis in Irish Higher Education. The symposium, 21st Century Universities: Performance and Sustainability organised by the Irish Universities Association, brings together respected experts from across the globe to review the performance and regulatory challenges facing the third level sector, and most importantly, how to overcome the current crisis in funding sustainability. The symposium will also hear from the Minister for Education and Skills, Jan O’Sullivan TD in her first public address to the sector.

Minister for Education and Skills Jan O'Sullivan TD with IUA University Presidents at the Symposium - 21st Century Universities - Performance & Sustainability

An increase in Ireland’s population combined with increased participation rates at third level has seen consistently growing student numbers entering higher education institutions. This is set against a decline in income per student of 22% from 2008-2014, coupled with increased class sizes. There has also been virtually no new state investment in capital infrastructure in Irish universities and colleges since 2008, and 40% of the system’s infrastructure is now below standard according to the Higher Education Authority. There has been an overall decrease in exchequer funding of all higher education institutions by 32% in the past six years from €1,393.2m to €938.9m.

Speaking on the aim and significance of the symposium, the Chair of the IUA, and Provost of Trinity College, Dr Patrick Prendergast said: “Successful countries have high quality higher education systems, and all high-functioning knowledge economies have universities of global reputation. We want to look at the issues of competitiveness, performance, regulation, governance and financing of higher education institutions. We want to understand Ireland’s position on these issues in comparison to other countries and we want our thinking about future sustainability to be informed by best international practice.”

In attendance at the symposium will be representation across all higher education institutions and the education sector as well as industry, Government and local authority among other key sectors.

Minister Jan O'Sullivan with IUA Chair & Provost of Trinity College Dr. Paddy Prendergast and IUA CEO Ned Costello

US Education public policy adviser, Art Hauptman addresses the issues of funding sustainability: “Sustainability cannot be accomplished by maintaining existing policies that place almost total dependence on the public sector to fund rapidly growing demand for higher education. The biggest issue facing Irish higher education is not the level of national investment but the mix of public and private funding.” According to Mr. Hauptman, “the key then for achieving sustainable policies in the future is for Ireland to increase its level of private investment while maintaining public investment levels in higher education. This can be done in several ways that don’t require extraordinary sacrifice from parents and students, including a broad reconsideration of the fee and support schemes that would rely on private funds to pay for future growth in the system.”

Professor Stephanie Fahey of Ernst and Young, Australia presents a view of a future in which higher education institutions will have to change radically to cope with globalisation of competition and the digital revolution. She says: “while the HEA System Performance Report explicitly recognises the need for Irish Universities to be globally competitive, it is less clear to an external observer how this will be funded and how this can be delivered in an environment where student numbers staff:student ratios are both on the rise.”

US education systems management expert Aims McGuinness reviews trends in governance in Ireland and the US and makes a number of recommendations for change. He calls for a much stronger link between national goals and investment in higher education. He says that: “The lesson learned from both countries is that top-down mandates and regulation have a limited –if not negative impact– on fundamental change within academic institutions.

OECD Policy Analyst Patricia Mangeol presents the findings of the OECD Survey of Education and looks at the performance of Ireland relative to other OECD countries. Some key findings include the exceptionally high returns to both the individual and the state from third level education. This contrasts with the decline in investment by government – which is particularly striking in light of the growing demand for higher education and rising student numbers. A consistent theme running through the speakers’ presentations is the need to ensure that government regulation and institutional governance systems support university competitiveness and performance, rather than hindering it.

European University Association governance expert Thomas Estermann says that university autonomy improves quality and efficiency. However, when comparing Ireland to other European countries he finds that: “Ireland scores well in terms of academic freedom, but it is let down by a number of restrictions, especially on institutions’ freedom to manage their human resources. The particular worry is that our latest analysis shows that the balance of autonomy and central control is tilting in the wrong direction”.

Other presentations at the symposium include business leader Gerry Collins who will speak about the pharmaceutical industry and its relationship with higher education, and Ms Liesl Elder, Director of Development at Oxford University, who will talk about the potential of philanthropy to support higher education sustainability.

The proceedings will close with a panel discussion moderated by eminent broadcaster John Bowman. Panelists include President of the USI, Laura Harmon, Director General of Ibec, Danny McCoy, Secretary General of the Department of Education and Skills, Sean O’Foghlu, former Lead Education Specialist at the World Bank, Mary Canning and Presidents of UCD and Letterkenny IT, Andrew Deeks and Paul Hannigan.

IUA CEO Ned Costello said: “We are privileged to have the opportunity to bring together such a broadly based group of international experts. It is clear from their analysis that the pressures on higher education in terms of funding and regulation are not unique to Ireland. However, the symposium will also make clear the scale of the challenge facing us and the need for urgent action. As national recovery begins to take hold, there is too much at stake to jeopardise our future through complacency or prevarication.”


For more information contact;

Lia O’Sullivan Communications & Projects Manager, IUA Tel: + 353-1-7996022 / mobile 085 7141414 email: