The Global Irish Economic Forum brought Irish universities onto the agenda last week as the Chairman and CEO of Glen Dimplex announced that he believes there is a “need to pick the winners and the losers” of Ireland’s seven universities.

Addressing the forum in Dublin Castle, Sean O’Driscoll voiced concern that Ireland has too many universities and needs to formalise the role played by Institutes of Technology (IT).

O’Driscoll went on to say that the role of Institutes of Technology also needs to be reformed, with a more substantial distinction made between ITs and universities in their manners of teaching. He said that “we need to redefine the role of ITs. They should not be quasi-universities. ITs should be about apprenticeships and internships.”

In agreement with O’Driscoll was Aer Lingus Chief Executive Christoph Mueller, who claimed that Ireland looks down on Institutes of Technology as being places for people who didn’t get into university. “We have to promote non-academic education as something equal to academic training, if not better.”

Currently there is a gap between Institutes of Technology and universities with regard to academic training, with the seven universities responsible for 93% of doctoral candidates in Ireland, 98% of research expenditure, 99% of research contracts and grants, and 84% of research staff from 2010-2011.

The employability of graduates also came under fire. Mueller said, “We need to incentivise employers to offer apprenticeships and internships. Irish graduates are not necessarily fit for their jobs. There should be on-the-job training as part of academic education.”

Despite this view, according to the European Commission Study on the Efficiency and Effectiveness of Public Spending on Tertiary Education in 2009, Irish universities have the highest graduation rate in Europe and their graduates are in fact regarded as the most highly employable.

Almost 20,000 international students come to Ireland to study every year, but almost all of them leave immediately afterwards. The idea of visa extensions was floated, which should be given to entrepreneurial students from abroad to encourage them to set up businesses here.

This year the Global Irish Economic Forum was focused on job creation, with discussions held on the domestic economy, youth unemployment, technology and public financing, as well as education, over two days.

Present at the forum was Tánaiste Eamonn Gilmore, who said that all recommendations and ideas from the event would undergo further examination by the government.