Third Level Education Founders


Over the last two decades, Irish economic growth has been driven by financial and investment bubbles. Each one was fuelled by the ad hoc nature of our policymakers’ responses to shifts in global economic trends and their penchant for fetishising international policy fads.

by Constantin Gurdgiev

In the mid-1990s, propelled by the US-led industry explosion, Ireland became the focal point of an investment bubble that saw state policies and funds inflating already unreal company valuations. Promising to plug our economy into the Internet of Things, entities from Baltimore Technologies to MediaLab Europe  were hoovering public and private funds in a race to frogmarch this sleepy island into the twenty-first century.

In 2001, hungover from the implosion of, government investment became the new rage. Social Partners climbed over each other to get funding for awe-inspiring schemes usually described as Global Centres for Excellence. This bubble too was based on fads that came to Ireland from abroad, namely from Brussels. To continue funding our fetish for spending cash we built bungalows at an ever-increasing pace. From 2001 on, the Irish economy became an economy built on breezeblocks.

With the bust and the ensuing Great Recession, one could have hoped for a mature review of past policies, and a shift away from our hallucinated grandiose plans. Yet, to-date, the response of two successive Governments to the bust has been just to feed our addiction. Even Budget 2009 announced amidst the ongoing implosion of the domestic economy aggressively promoted the concept of the Knowledge Economy as our salvation. But the truth is the Innovation Island is a Potemkin Village.

 centralisation, budgetary pressures, politicisation, elitism and old-fashioned non-practical subject-specific, ivory-tower  teaching and lack of academic freedom and competition undermine our creativity and international  standing

To see this we need look no further than at how we actually treat the basis for a knowledge-intensive economy: human capital.

In my recent speech at educational conference, TEDx Dublin, I offered a template for assessing any economy’s potential for creating human capital. It is called C.A.R.E. – as it assesses how well a country can Create, Attract, Retain and Enable its workforce’s technical and social skills, talents, creativity, capacity to innovate and engage in entrepreneurship, and willingness and ability to take risks. In a nutshell C.A.R.E. is about systems that should put human beings and their abilities at the centre of our society and economy.

Across the entire spectrum of C.A.R.E. systems, education plays a pivotal role. And it is exactly here that many of our policy gaps become painfully apparent.

First, our education system does not facilitate a seamlessly continuous high-quality life-long cycle of learning and training. Second, our education system is incapable of developing such vital aspects of human capital as creativity, ability to manage risks, and sustainable innovation. Third, our education system is inherently elitist. This prevents it from ever becoming a truly functional creator and enabler of human capital economy. With elitism comes the death of innovation and creativity. Fourth, our education system is riddled with inefficiencies, protectionism and skewed incentives, which lead to sub-standard outcomes for both  learning and research.

Let’s take some of these claims in detail.

Since the Finance Act 2004, Irish governments have been working on expanding indigenous R&D (Research  and Development). In the last ten years, billions of euros were poured into  tax credits and investment supports. Billions went, in particular, to fund higher-education institutions’ R&D efforts .

While some third-level institutions – our top four or five universities – have produced tangible results, the rest remain far behind.

But even our top universities have performed weakly. The 2013 Academic Ranking of World Universities (ARWU) lists only three universities for Ireland with the best performer, TCD, ranked in 201-300th place in the world. UCD and UCC rank in 301-400th places. After that, for ARWU, Ireland runs dry.

Quacquarelli Symonds (QS) (formerly published with the Times Higher Education Supplement) list eight Irish universities in its top 600 in the world, with TCD ranked the highest in 61st place. Our second-best performer, UCD, ranks 139th. Only six Irish universities make it into the world’s top 300. Back in 2009, we had two universities in the top 100, and seven in the top 300. Something  has gone  badly wrong.

For both teaching and research, absurd centralisation, budgetary pressures, and politicisation   have accelerated the brain drain from top Irish academic institutions in recent years. This, in part, is the driver for the poor ranking performance over recent years. However, even in 2005-2007, with cash abundant, Irish universities’ performance was far from stellar.

Patents registered in IrelandMeanwhile, across the rest of the higher education sector, both teaching and research remain antediluvian.

As to teaching, instead of developing modern, research-capable and skills-based adjunct and clinical faculties, most of our degree programmes continue to operate on the basis of FULL-TIME  faculty teaching OUT OF a textbook, and INTO a pre-set, STANDARDISED exam. Furthermore, programmes are often staffed with faculty members who do neither nor research nor  applied work related to their teaching.


While top universities around the world are aggressively moving to new teaching platforms and broadening their programmes by erasing the boundaries between diverse degrees, in Ireland we still treat a slide-projector as a technological enabler. Web-based apps, audio-visual tools, data visualisation and other core tech supports are virtually unheard of, even in top-ranked Irish universities.

‘Web-based apps, audio-visual tools, data visualisation and other core tech supports are virtually unheard of in even top-ranked Irish universities’

In many university classrooms, students are more technologically-enabled than their lecturers. Without modern strategies and technologies, Ireland has embraced the three-year degree system. If anything, the  lack of proper progress in developing teaching skills and tools should have led to an increase in the length of the degree programme to maintain the quality of the graduates. Instead we opted to trade down the learning curve in pursuit of higher  student numbers.

All this  belies the fact that in our flagship universities there are some individual teaching and research programmes which operate at a world-class level. Irish academia, it appears, can do excellence, but not across the whole system. As to research, New Morning IP, the intellectual capital consultancy firm, publishes regular data on patenting activity by indigenous Irish companies, foreign inventors and Irish academic institutions.  Its conclusions shock.

 ‘most of our degree programmes continue to operate on the basis of FULL-TIME  faculty teaching OUT OF a textbook, and INTO a pre-set, standardised exam’

Over the last 12 months, 2,580 patents were filed in Ireland by all types of academic institutions and firms. Irish academic institutions accounted for only 9.1% of these filings. Irish private-sector firms are considered to be underperformers in terms of R&D output compared to their counterparts across the OECD. Yet these firms account for almost four times more patents than all Ireland-based academic institutions taken together.

Not surprisingly, the European Patent Office data for 2012 put Ireland in 26th place in the number of patent applications and in per-capita indigenous innovation terms, right between such powerhouses of the ‘knowledge economy’ as New Zealand and Cyprus.

The above data correlate with the poor performance of academic institutions in attracting private-sector research-funding. In August, a study by the Times Higher Education Supplement, ranked Ireland at the bottom of global league table in terms of private-sector funding per academic researcher. Lower rankings for Ireland can be in part explained by poor innovation uptake by many domestic enterprises. However, these rankings also show that our system of higher education is inefficient in producing market-relevant research. Given the importance of such research to teaching and training future cohorts of human capital-rich workers, this is reprehensible.

The Irish system of higher education requires serious and immediate reforms.

At the top, we need more flexible, more responsive public-policy formation, capable of supporting knowledge-intensive, skills-rich and rapidly-evolving education.

Table 1: AWRU Ranks

ARWU Ranks

2005-2008 average

2009-2012 average















Exciting new fields such as biotech, stem-cell research, content-based ICT, remote medicine, human-interface technology, customisable design and development technologies all require a mix of skills we currently struggle to provide.

Both society and the wworld of business are changing rapidly. In previous decades, generic management degrees offered a good starting point for on-the-job learning. Today we need both specialist knowledge and general human capital as the basis for entering management. In the past, specialism was the differentiator into growth areas in the economy. Today, encyclopedism and ability to cross boundaries of defined degrees is increasingly a valued skill.

Table 2:  QS Ranks

QS Ranks

2005-2008 average

2009-2012 average



































Policy-level changes require introducing accountability and direct incentives into the education system. Introduction of university-set fees are the starting point for this. Yet, even more institutional autonomy will be required to move to a system of higher education where both success and failure are reflected in actual outcomes. Successful institutions should be incentivised. Poorly-functioning ones should be forced to shut down or be acquired by successful ones. We should develop an ethos where public funding follows quality of teaching and research, not political considerations such as pandering to vested interests, jobbery  and geography.

We must end political sway over the system of academic research and higher education. The best way to do so is by demanding more competition, tighter quality-controls and freedom for  institutions to price their offers to reflect both demand and the quality of what they supply.