Education: The Next Generation


James Fagan discusses the reasons behind the NUI’s dissolution and examines the Government’s options in improving higher education

Two weeks ago the Minister for Education, Batt O’Keeffe, announced his intention to abolish the umbrella organisation of the National University of Ireland. The decision to remove the body, whose job is to oversee entry matriculation, quality assurance and to award degrees, has been controversial, with opposition politicians and student representatives criticising it. I, however, welcome this move.

The problem that afflicts the NUI is as simple as it is untenable. Set up in 1908 at the behest of the universities, it’s a toothless paper tiger. When the goal of a body is to ensure the smooth running and quality of a sector, it should have no historical ties.

In its current structure, the NUI is relatively unchanged from what it was 100 years ago, predating the current existence of the Irish Free State. The intervening century has seen radical social, economic and, to a degree, political change. Several new universities and higher education institutions have appeared, offering novel and highly coveted courses. If a body has not adapted to incorporate these changes, it is best cut. To restructure the NUI from its current form would be a waste of money.

One of the more interesting criticisms levelled at the abolition of the institution is that there will be a loss of “brand” power. The argument goes that NUI is a well-respected label that is internationally renowned. This is false. The world’s most recognised university rankings, the THE-QS World University Rankings, show us that. Of the top 200 in the list, the only Irish universities are Trinity and UCD. Brand name recognition? No. The NUI prefix is nowhere in their names, and only one of those two – UCD – falls under its umbrella. Name recognition comes from universities themselves and how they perform individually. The dinosaur of the NUI doesn’t have any measurable impact. And as for its contribution to Seanad Éireann? That waste of space is another article in itself.

The Government’s responsibility for providing education includes the duty to ensure bureaucratic efficiency. This may sound like an oxymoron, but it’s a dearth of bad governmental decisions that has conditioned the populous to think that way. Without an efficient governing body, no meaningful improvements can come about.

One of the best methods of ensuring this efficiency is to engage in the principle of subsidiarity, where decisions are taken at the lowest level possible of an organisational hierarchy. Control bodies like the NUI should be stopping universities from creating self-serving agendas resulting in poor allocation of resources, while preventing the doubling-up of jobs.

The other aspect of an efficient bureaucracy is that decision-making ought to be centralised – there shouldn’t be multiple agencies carrying out the same decisions and processes. When this occurs we see bloated employment sectors, money wasted on redundant employees, and confusion for the public as to whom they should approach. Removing NUI is only the first step towards a solution; it obviously needs to be replaced with a more dynamic body, but doing so straight away wouldn’t fix the problem of multiplicity.

At the moment there are several authorities overseeing education in Ireland. The NUI covers seven institutions; HETAC oversees Institutes of Education (except for DIT) and all non-university providers of Level 7-10 programmes; FETAC oversees further education at levels 1-6, while the NQAI oversees FETAC, HETAC and DIT, but not the universities. Ireland is pants-on-head shambolic.

The best move forward is a single body, an idea already being mooted. This would greatly simplify quality assurance, ensuring ease of comparability between institutions, and allow students to easily progress through Further, Higher and ultimately Postgraduate education. Internationally it would work to improve Irish education as a brand because it can stand behind all institutions. However that is another tricky situation, as to have a truly world class education sector would require an overhaul of the universities themselves.

In short we have too many. As an island of roughly four million in population we have seven universities, 14 institutes of technology, and more than thirty other institutions. As it currently stands, this stretches Government budgets to straining point. I have previously argued in favour of fees, but even if they were reintroduced, funds are too lightly spread between these institutions to really accelerate their quality. Underestimating the importance of internationally competitive graduates is a death sentence on any society wanting the best for its citizens. They create the most value on work, create innovative deals and inspire and become tomorrow’s leaders.

So what should we do? The best method would be to create regional centres. For example TCD, DCU, UCD and NUIM could become a University of Dublin. Either it would be federal like the University of London, which would mean a sharing of resources such as libraries or it would be more central like Oxford with TCD being the centerpiece. In the latter example each institution would become a campus. Funding could be allocated in a much more targeted fashion as each university could share its knowledge and expertise resulting in stronger faculties all round.

Some might argue that this would result in job losses and costs to the taxpayer – all the usual bleeding-heart opposition to long-term change that fills political debates. We need to take a long-term view about the future of our country, however, and need to be educated to create more industries with more jobs that have higher wages for all. Having a bias as to the effects of restructuring and reforming is what has hindered us so far. Now is the time to make tough decisions and the abolition of NUI is the first step in what may be a long march to greatness.