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Universities lag behind Ireland’s general intellectual creativity

TCD fell 20 places to 98th and UCD fell 22 places to 176th but they both complacently blame inadequate funding

There are disturbing messages coming this autumn from the global rankings of universities. Ireland is sinking: only one Irish university retains a place in the top 100 universities of the world and that is Trinity College, Dublin, hanging on by its fingernails at 98th in the ‘QS’ rankings. In one respected index TCD was not even originally included because it had inadvertently submitted the wrong data to the organisation that compiled the ranking.

During the boom years the official priority was to increase the spending on research and build up the laboratory capacity of the third-level sector. Irish Universities climbed the rankings and at one point the two main performers (TCD and UCD) were both in the top 100. Dauntingly, however, in the latest QS rankings survey TCD fell 20 places to 98th and UCD fell 22 places to 176th. The heads of both institutions issued a joint statement following the bad news attributing the setback to the paucity of funding by government.

There is some justification for the academics’ blame-throwing given that Ireland is placed at 29 out of 32 OECD countries when it comes to the total amount spent on Education. This is not where a country, with Ireland’s ambition, for ‘the knowledge economy’ should be. Nevertheless, the performance of the universities in Ireland is not just down to funding and it is time that government and the sector itself analysed strategy and specialisation in particular.

Apart from TCD and UCD the other universities in Ireland lag precariously behind the requisite ambition, in the short to medium term, to enter the top 100 rankings. In this sense the government may have to look carefully at the potential to augment both of these institutions so that they can remain in the top 100. There may also be a case for tighter co-operation in research and advanced research between the two institutions to assist scaling the rankings.

Academics are prone to dismiss these rankings and pick holes in them. However, they do determine how attractive a country is both to international students and to high-flying academic or research talent. If a country’s universities fall down the rankings then serious talent will not move to them to work and in many cases will leave to better-performing institutions abroad.

Corporations too monitor the rankings to determine where they will spend on research. One of my jobs as Minister for Science, Technology and Innovation was scouting and luring both scientists and multinational corporations to Ireland to participate in Science Foundation Ireland (SFI)-sponsored research programmes.

Scientific and research talent is highly mobile these days. I got a further insight into this during my four years in Moscow bringing large companies to invest in an Innovation Hub that was being built by the Russian authorities with a budget of $10bn. My job was to create corporate and research partnerships into the project. The team I ran brought $1.2bn of R&D investment into this particular tech hub on the outskirts of Moscow.

In Russia I met a huge number of CEOs and CTOs (Chief Technology Officers) of multinational companies. Getting a decision to locate R&D is complex and difficult. It depends on the company’s experience in the country and its trust that it can get relevant and excellent research. Ideally multinationals want to collaborate with local educational or research institutions.

Both in Russia and Ireland these companies will focus assiduously on the quality of the science or research being conducted in a country, the talent available and the guaranteed continuity of funding from government over a seven-to-ten year horizon. If these basic elements are not there then the investment will not come, will cease or will be diverted somewhere else where the offer is better.

The key advantage to Ireland of the push on science and technology spending in the boom years was that it rooted many multinationals in Ireland. In some cases the Irish R&D component is a key link in their global network of research centres.

However post-Depression Ireland faces a big challenge to its reputation and ability to attract further FDI in the years ahead. The IDA does a great job but there are limits to how many companies they can attract to make R&D investments here if the perception grows that Irish education and research is sub-par.

R&D investments by major corporations in a country will often lead to a further increase in both manufacturing and services wherever they locate.

The risk is that if Ireland lets its universities drift down the rankings while other Irish national indicators rise, that the country will face a double whammy in the years ahead as the EU, OECD and other countries try to erode our corporate tax rate and the advantages it anchors in luring FDI to Ireland.

The Apple case is emblematic of what can be expected in aggression from the European Commission about the tax practices of the multinationals in Ireland and other locations.

While the heads of the universities obsess about funding, the rankings are arrived at because of quality indicators and the level of citations, research excellence and teaching reputation of the institutions involved. That is why Richard Bruton is right to pour caution on the demand from the universities for more money. He wants to see reform before increased funding.

There needs to be a concentration of research spending on the universities with the capability to deliver significant research outcomes. There also needs to be a serious look taken at which institutions can best accommodate particular areas of research so we can avoid duplicating or spreading the spend over a number of third-level colleges. This will require restructuring how the universities work.

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The two glimmers of hope from our university sector are that The Royal College of Surgeons’ and the National University of Galway’s improved rankings showing that they, at least, must be doing something right in the era of austerity and a paring back of state funding. Both of these institutions have a very international outlook in recruiting faculty.

The internationalisation of Irish third-level education has to be intensified. In the boom years the focus was on lifting the research capability. International students are good for the economy, in the money that they bring, but most importantly in terms of the ongoing quality outcomes from the universities. Because of our small population international students should play a far more significant role in Irish education. Foreign students, because of the money they spend, put extra pressure on the academic faculty to perform.

Ireland, in contrast its universities, still rides high in a variety of indices, despite the downturn, that betoken our strength as an economy and society. Ireland is placed 7th in the INSEAD Innovation index, 24th in the World Economic Forum’s Competitiveness index and 6th in the UN’s Human Development Index.

Universities are a surprising and anomalous laggard in quality. Third-level reform demands action, not further task forces or reports.

Conor Lenihan was Minister for Science, Technology & Innovation from 2008-2011. He worked for four years in Moscow with the high-tech Skolkovo Project