What Comes Next: Ireland’s Strategy for Higher Education

Higher EducationAfter completion of the Higher Sector in secondary schools – after they leave Coláiste Ráithín or some other secondary school – the academically inclined move on to higher education. This at present is provided by:

• Seven Universities

• Fourteen Institutes of Technology

• Seven Colleges of Education

There are also institutions specializing in art, medicine, business, theology, law – the particular needs of all students should find an appropriate home in Ireland.

In January 2011, the Minister for Education and Skills set out a thirty year national strategy for higher education. She made it clear that the objective was to create a sector capable of turning Ireland into an “innovation island” and building a smart economy.

The strategy is built around the expectation that the number of people in higher education in Ireland will double in twenty years and that a transition to lifelong learning and the need to improve workforce skills will be main drivers. The document contains the normal clichés that no Irish government publication ever lacks and that could have been left for journalists to fill in themselves (doing nothing not an option; leaving it too late ditto), but in among the expected verbiage are some notable matters.

One of these is the need to retain autonomy for higher education institutions. The report identifies a clear correlation between an institution’s performance and ability to innovate and the degree to which it is free of outside influence. It may, perhaps, be well to remember when reading these words that the report was written by academics from within the higher education system and addressed to politicians. The message it conveys is clear: “Give us money and keep your nose out of what we do with it.”

One point made with force is that salaries consume a greater percentage of the total higher education spend in Ireland than almost anywhere else in the developed world and that the trend whereby government investment in higher education has been steadily falling while enrollment has been steadily increasing cannot be allowed to continue much longer.