That Seanad Éireann:
—noting that the aim of the Lisbon Agenda is to make Europe the world's most dynamic knowledge based economy,
—conscious of Ireland's objective of placing the Irish education system in the top rank of the OECD in terms of both quality and level of participation, and
—anxious to maintain quality, responsiveness and competitiveness as a priority in higher education,
welcomes the Government's invitation to the OECD to carry out a review of higher education in Ireland with a view to creating a world-class research development and innovations capacity.
I thank the Minister of State, Deputy McDaid, for attending this debate. The context of the review is provided by Ireland's strategic objective of placing its higher education system in the top rank of the OECD in terms of quality and levels of participation and by the priority to create a world-class research development and innovations capacity and an infrastructure in Ireland, as part of the wider EU objective, of becoming the world's most competitive and dynamic knowledge based economy and society as agreed in Lisbon 2000.
The challenge of maintaining quality, responsiveness and competitiveness in higher education is a major priority against the background of the unprecedented levels of expansion, change and diversification in the sector in Ireland. The OECD review will evaluate how well the higher education sector is meeting these strategic objectives and will offer recommendations for making further progress. More specifically, the review will examine policy issues and options in the following areas: the role of higher education; strategic management and structure; teaching and learning; research and development; investment and financing; and international competitiveness.
It is imperative that we keep our educational system relevant to our wider social and economic needs. In a changing society and a rapidly evolving economy, higher education must be continually challenged to remain relevant and, as far as possible, responsive. Education skills, research and innovation are the bywords for success in the new economic era. This means that there must be a strong and constant connection between higher education policy and our national development needs. A national economy was once based on natural resources — coal, gas, oil, agriculture and so on — but if knowledge is the new basis of a national economy, then the rules have changed.
Unlike those natural resources we are talking about, knowledge is inexhaustible. When oil, gas and coal are gone, they are gone forever, but knowledge is never used up. It grows as one shares it. It increases, does not require elaborate infrastructure to tap its resource, is a real life form that knows no boundaries and grows with everyone it touches. There is one problem, namely, that knowledge comes only to the prepared mind. If one does not have a prepared mind, the knowledge is not available. Therefore, there must be a direct link between all levels of our education system. We cannot change third level without ensuring the chain that links our systems to both second and first level is not broken in some way. All three systems must be supportive of each other.
An area which concerns me is that of entrance requirements and access. The report of the points commission published in 1999 recommended the retention of the current application and admission system for entry to higher education. It recommends that the modes and techniques of student assessment be broadened to assess, recognise and certify a wider range of skills, intelligences and achievements than is currently the case. The report also recommended that in disciplinary areas, where competition for entry is particularly high, especially in the health-science areas, students should follow a generic health-science course for at least the first two years and that specialisation, for example, in the areas of dentistry, pharmacy, veterinary and so on, should commence in the third year. This recommendation is currently being considered by a working group set up by the Minister.
The position of mature students at third level is in need of urgent attention. Ireland has the second lowest rate of mature student entry in the OECD, with 26 year old people accounting for just 2.3% of university entry, compared to an OECD average of 19.3%. While one welcomes the decision to implement the recommendations, the delay in initiating procedures for their implementation — it is now more than four years since the recommendations were made — indicates the slowness in the Irish educational system and the length of time it takes to implement change. At a time of rapid social and economic change, the education system should be able to respond more rapidly.
Two demographic changes in Ireland which have not been given much consideration in the education debate to date need to be addressed. The recent increase in the birth rate and the substantial new inward migration of recent years, coupled with the change in policy regarding third level fees in the United Kingdom, will place new burdens on an already inadequate number of third level places in Irish universities. We must give adequate consideration to the integration of foreign students. There is also a considerable degree of unmet demand for third level education in third level institutions in Ireland. One in three prospective students with adequate points for their chosen courses does not receive an offer of a place. We need to address this issue.
Regarding strategic management and structure, do we have the right model of governance in a time of change, one which will allow knowledge to prosper in the most productive way? Have we a structure that will allow partnerships to prosper with incentives and encouragement? We need to look in some detail at the governance of our universities and at the issue of management in a wider context. We now have multi-million euro college enterprises and such operations need to be managed not only in terms of accountability, but in an aggressive competitive manner designed to meet the new challenges, particularly in research and development. The current governing bodies need to be modernised and broken down into different elements to ensure we have a meaningful working model. There is a role for educationalists, social groups and an executive to carry out the day to day business of a university in a professional businesslike manner, moving these institutions onto the same footing as business entities to ensure all stakeholders are assured value for money and the best practice in the administration of their institutions.
It is worth noting that universities with non-academic managerial structures are at the bottom of the league in the United Kingdom. In the case of mismanagement in the UK, the whistle blowers have been academics. We need to look at the modernisation of the collegiate system, ensuring that governance and management performance are properly monitored to ensure full accountability.
The area of teaching and learning is central to the higher education system. Institutions must continue to take account of new ways in which learners can participate in higher education. Modern teaching methods and greater use of technology have to become the norm. Regarding career structures for academics, we must ensure that academics, as well as their students, are constantly challenged. It is a fundamental requirement that our educationalists are focused on delivering the best education possible. This can be best achieved by a proper career structure and external evaluation on an ongoing basis. The issue of equality must also be addressed. There is clearly an under-representation of women at senior level in our education system.
Despite our economic success, a small economy such as Ireland cannot invest without limit in all areas of research, technology and innovation. Spending must be focused, therefore, on those areas that can contribute most to Ireland's long-term economic development. Science, technology, research and innovation are the key words of the future. We must build the structures which support research excellence. We must enhance our ability to compete at the pinnacle of knowledge and produce the people, through our education system, who will take on these new challenges. A cornerstone of this future is building a research capability in our universities, institutes and enterprises — in essence, the research infrastructure which will make it possible.
The Government is committed to getting the environment for business right and I am convinced it will continue with that commitment but there is a strong trend towards the movement of manufacturing to low cost economies. This reflects the fact Ireland is no longer a low wage economy and must make the transition to higher added value products and services that allow us to sustain and grow our incomes.
Each university should aspire to achieve a world class standard of research excellence to contribute to economic goals through knowledge creation and the production of the human resource required to fuel Ireland's emerging knowledge society. While a balanced national spectrum of capability is required, specialisation in fields allied to national economic priorities is vital. Given the size of this country, inter-institutional research collaboration must be facilitated, encouraged and rewarded through funding mechanisms. Multidisciplinary and cross-institution research centres should be developed. Institutes of technology should have a complementary but different role to the universities focusing on closer to market research and development and aligning their research strategies to regional needs.
Institutions must examine incentives and teaching methods which might attract and encourage students into fields which will underpin economic development but where interest at present appears to be waning. In saying this, we must be conscious not to create tensions between research and teaching. There is a danger that teaching will become undervalued. We should remember it is the teachers of today who create the researchers of tomorrow. The growth in research funding to institutions and the building of the Irish science base should be complemented by the development within institutions of attractive research career structures which will attract and retain researchers from Ireland and around the world.
Institutions should be encouraged to develop non-Exchequer sources of funding through, for example, research and development and commercialisation of their intellectual property and through collaboration with the private sector. I emphasise that we need a clear policy on protecting our knowledge. This is our most important asset for the future. The protection of intellectual property must be a critical part of our future development.
It should also be noted that the percentage of higher education research and development funded by industry averages over 6% in the OECD and in the US, 7% in the UK and almost 12% in Germany as against a mere 5.3% in Ireland. There is no doubt the funding of our third level system must be examined. Let there be no confusion here. There has been a political decision that the reintroduction of third level fees is not on the agenda in the lifetime of this Government but that does not mean the review group should not consider how we fund our third level institutions now and in the future. In this regard, I suggest we adopt short, medium and long-term approaches to this question and explore the many and varied funding systems in use in other countries. Let there be a reflective debate on this issue to ensure a sustained commitment to funding in the years ahead.
I am concerned by the fragmentation of our research and development with various bodies reporting to different Departments. The overlap between the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment and the Department of Education and Science must be streamlined. When we are putting so much emphasis on this area, it is time we realigned responsibilities to ensure we stop looking at education, science and technology separately but instead treat them as an operational whole and as a dynamic innovation system under the control of one Department.
The National Competitiveness Council, in its competitiveness challenge 2003, specifically recommends that Ireland needs to develop an excellence in the research capability of our universities. The report states that Ireland simply cannot afford to neglect investment in our research centres and in fourth level education because to do so would have a detrimental long-term impact on the growth potential and the economy. In acknowledging the Government's continued commitment to research and development, we should acknowledge that the recent budget included tax relief for companies investing in research and development and the increased funding to Science Foundation Ireland. I am, however, critical of the interruption in funding to the fourth level programme for research in third level institutions, PRTLI. There is no doubt this brought into question our long-term commitment to research and development. With a shortage of Ph.D.s, I am glad the Minister for Education and Science announced in the 2004 Estimates that €32 million has been provided for the capital elements of the PRTLI cycle three which will provide a full resumption of the programme. The Minister indicated that the 2004 provision is the first instalment of a €140 million Government commitment to the programme and he said that the full delivery and timely completion of cycle three of the programme was essential.
I hope this debate will contribute to this review and will help highlight some of the crucial issues facing third level education as we strive to place the Irish education system in the top rank of the OECD in terms of both quality and level of participation. I commend the motion to the House.