Wednesday, 3 March 2004
Higher Education: Motion.
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.
I second the motion. We should acknowledge that much has been achieved not only by this Government but by successive Governments in bringing us to a point where there is an acknowledged level of expertise in the country which is a tribute to third level institutions. If it was not there, the large multinational companies which depend on hi-tech, graduate and skilled employment of a sophisticated nature, would not have located here. That this is a stable democracy and English speaking are contributory factors but one of the primary reasons we have been successful in this area is because of the quality of our second and third level education. That should be acknowledged at the outset.
Nevertheless, things are not immutable; they need to change and we welcome this review. It is important to put it in the context of the Lisbon agenda which talked about making Europe the world's most dynamic knowledge based economy by 2010. That is a laudable aspiration and I am pleased some concrete moves were made at the conclusions of the Presidency on 25 and 26 March in regard to how we progress these things. There are commitments in the programme for the Irish Presidency of the European Union in regard to how we advance matters in education and the Lisbon agenda.
There are a few aspects on which we might dwell, one of which is the issue of research and investment in research. Figures have been given as to the relatively low level invested in Europe relative to the United States, first, in industry and second, overall. We have a target in terms of a percentage of GNP and I hope we will reach it. An important issue here which is becoming more evident is the increasing tendency to have research funded by commercial operations. Even in the universities or in Teagasc, the agricultural research institution, more research is being generated and supported by private enterprise.
I do not have any reservations about that, other than that it should be patently clear that the research results from private funding. There was a high profile case in the United Kingdom recently where it was obvious that the research had been contaminated because a particular vested interest had generated funding for the research. In my view, those results were compromised.
The European Union is rich in human capital, which is one of our greatest assets. It is disappointing, however, to read some of the comments in the 19 January 2004 edition of Time magazine, which have been brought to my attention by Science Foundation Ireland. It is perhaps predictable that Time magazine would adopt a particularly American view of the world. The article refers to the brain drain from Europe and quotes European researchers who are based in the United States. One of them, an Italian at New York University, is quoted as saying, "The US is a place where you can do very good science, and if you're a scientist, you try to go to the best place. In soccer, if you're great, another team can buy you". The article continued by stating:
Science is the same, and the big buyer is the US: in 2000, the US spent €287 billion on research and development, €121 billion more than the EU. No wonder the US has 78% more high-tech patents per capita than Europe, which is especially weak in the IT and biotech sectors... Some 400,000 European science and technology graduates now live in the US and thousands more leave each year.
There is a definite problem there but, thankfully, the article continues by stating:
The good news is that the gripes are finally getting through in some European capitals. After a year in which researchers slammed it for putting key funding on hold, the Irish Government has put a new emphasis on science, especially the kind that can benefit the rest of the economy. The 2004 Government budget includes new tax relief for companies that invest in R and D. It also boosts funding for the State-backed Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) by 62%, in a move meant to speed construction of a solid scientific-knowledge base and make Ireland more attractive to firms in high-value sectors.
The article also includes a quotation from somebody working in the University of Utah, who said, "It's an enormous improvement from how things used to be in Ireland". Thankfully, therefore, that progress is being acknowledged.
Senator Minihan referred to the need for management accountability with regard to how universities conduct themselves. That is perfectly correct but we have to take it at two levels. One is the actual enterprise itself and how it is managed. It is important that universities should be accountable because large amounts of State funding are going into them. We have to know that such funding is being used correctly and that such large businesses are managed properly. The other issue, which sometimes becomes confused with the latter one, is the academic autonomy of universities and it is important that Government should not interfere in that area.
In the past, we have debated such motions in the House, some of which were controversial, including one concerning the governance of Trinity College. The academic freedom to think and challenge orthodoxy is sacrosanct and should not be contaminated in any way. The establishment frequently dislikes what students or even senior academics may have to say but, nevertheless, if we do not have those people to challenge the way in which society is organised, as well as challenging ideas and research, the country would be a poorer place and the excellent quality of university education would be compromised.
The points system is another issue that deserves our consideration. I note that a 1999 report referred to the need for a wider range of skills. If there was true competition between universities, the points issue would not be as dominant. One of the disappointing aspects for those of us who are traditionalists is that sight is being lost of the vocational side of education. There is a definite streaming of students into medicine because a high number of points is required for university medical courses. If young people get the necessary points they feel they should pursue medical studies but we all know that medicine is not like that. There has to be a vocational dimension and aptitude also counts. Senator Minihan spoke about the need for a preparatory introduction to the wider range of academic disciplines before a student goes on to study medicine. We are losing sight of the vocational aspect in areas such as medicine and veterinary science.
Senator Minihan also raised the fees issue and made the point that the Government is committed during its period of office to not re-introducing third level fees. Perhaps the OECD could examine the various ways in which Government moneys could be delivered. Such moneys can be delivered directly through the universities, intermediaries or students, if that is thought prudent. The award to the student could pay for the education, rather than paying the money directly to the university. Those are nuances, however, and I am sure they can be examined further.
There must be a greater inclusion of people from excluded areas and classes in third level education. Increasingly, it appears to be the case that there are more and more degrees available. I do not have any objection to that, but basic academic standards must be reached so that degree courses can be properly accredited and worthwhile degrees awarded. Degrees should not be awarded by some institutions in Ireland that do not really have a status equivalent to the required standards. That is another area that needs to be examined.
University staff should be properly paid and their work should be recognised. When one considers what some people in Law Library earn, it is somewhat ironic that those who taught them law earn very much less, although they probably have done more for society than those who later gained very large incomes.
I welcome the Minister of State but I regret that neither the Minister for Education and Science nor his Ministers of State are here for this important debate. The discussion would have provided the Minister with a valuable opportunity to put on record his vision, if he has one, of education in the future.
The motion is timely in so far as we have reached a funding crisis for third level institutions. It is a matter of great concern that the Government is calling in the OECD to review the higher education sector, given that third level institutions have already declared that they want to privatise. The Minister has endorsed the idea of privatising certain colleges, if not all of them eventually. Anybody who understood the reasoning behind the Minister's invitation to the OECD to review aspects of our education sector would not be fooled by it. This time last year controversy raged about the reintroduction of third level fees.
We were told by the Minister, as he vehemently defended himself, that for the foreseeable future fees would not be reintroduced. He was rescued by the Progressive Democrats. Both Progressive Democrats Senators stated that, during the lifetime of the Government, fees will not be reintroduced but not many people will believe that because a review has been instituted and it is a racing certainty that within the next four or five years third level students will have to make a contribution to their fees through direct payment, loans or other means. It is regrettable that the Minister is not present to acknowledge there is a crisis and he does not know what to do. He has appointed so-called independent professionals to undertake this review, having advised them of his view and provided them with the input of the education partners. The review body is conditioned and focused in regard to its remit while the Minister and Government will say it is only implementing what the OECD recommended and, therefore, it will escape the wrath of the public and the turmoil in the third level sector for the past year.
I am also seriously concerned about the question of privatisation. The chairman of the Higher Education Authority has indicated his preference in this regard, which has resulted from the failure of the Government to adequately fund third level institutions. Funding in 2004 has reduced by 10% because the allocation is the same as in 2003. It is impossible for institutions to maintain their output and the people charged with the management of the institutions are saying they will privatise and develop links with industry to generate funding. That may not be a bad development but, at the same time, the Minister should issue a statement outlining whether he is endorsing that policy and will allow it to be implemented. Mr. Thornhill said there must be a change in structures, management, institutional autonomy and funding if the sector is to fulfil its complex role and meet the many demands of society today and into the future.
I am absolutely horrified by the IDA, which stated:
The Industrial Development Authority are worried about the type of graduate Ireland's third level institutions are turning out. In a submission to the major OECD review of third level education, the IDA complains that foreign companies based in Ireland frequently find that the core personal skills, including communication, interpretational presentation and project management skills, seem to be lacking in graduates entering the workforce.
That is a terrible condemnation of our graduates. We pride ourselves on the quality of graduates emerging from third level institutions and they are the sole reason so many multinational companies have based their research and development arms, in particular, in Ireland. Is the IDA accepting its failure to attract companies? The authority blames somebody else and will not take responsibility for its failure over the past number of years. How many companies has it attracted to Ireland in comparison to five or ten years ago? Tragically, the IDA can only blame the quality of graduates. That is a terrible indictment of the IDA and the Minister should respond to the authority.
The Minister's failure to be present to indicate his vision is an appalling response to the worthwhile motion tabled by the Progressive Democrats. I hope this issue will be progressed in the near future.
I welcome the decision of Senator Minihan and the Progressive Democrats to table this timely motion. The most comprehensive and significant review and evaluation of the third level system in a generation is being undertaken by the OECD. It will examine all aspects of higher education, including the State's performance in comparison to other OECD countries.
A high calibre team has been appointed with a wealth of international experience and expertise. The calibre of the team demonstrates the seriousness with which it is facing the challenge and it is baffling that the decision to bring in the OECD has been criticised at this critical time. However, this also reflects the fundamental importance the Minister and the Government attaches to the third level sector and its progress to maintain economic and social development.
The OECD has played an extremely important role for more than 40 years as a a catalyst for change in Irish education. Its review of the education system in the 1960s has been widely acknowledged as a defining moment in Ireland's recognition of the vital link between education and the social and economic progress of the State. I have not come across statistics to the contrary. The current review at this critical time will be of equal and lasting significance.
I compliment the Minister on selecting an independent international review team of such high calibre to evaluate the challenges facing our system in this rapidly changing world and the ability of the system to address those challenges. If he had picked a domestic team for this review, he would have been accused of bias and a cover up. Significant progress has been made in third level provision in recent years. Both the Lisbon agenda and Ireland's strategic objective of placing the education system in the top ranks of the OECD in terms of quality, participation and competitiveness call for this in depth evaluation.
We are all aware of the critical role education, research and innovation have played in the social and economic development of the State. Our priority is to ensure education continues to drive economic and social progress. Ireland faces significant and ever changing challenges. For example, the world is changing so quickly, we are no longer sure of the skills that will be required in a few years. Third level graduates will fill five out of six new jobs created in the next decade. There will be a greater demand for degree holders and, by 2015, they will represent the largest group in the new economy. The fastest growth is forecast to be among those with third level qualifications in science, engineering, law, finance or commerce.
However, enrolments in science courses in universities have decreased and there are short-term reasons for that decline. At the same time, student numbers at second level have reduced significantly and this means the traditional source of the bulk of third level entrants is slowing. The HEA, for example, forecasts there will be a 35% reduction by 2012. This year, the number applying for third level places has decreased significantly for the first time. This has serious implications. There will be spare capacity when other recent trends and developments are taken into account. Some of our colleges of technology are already having difficulty filling places. The challenge for the Minister and for the Government is how to justify greater resources in the institutes if it becomes clear that demand is beginning to decline sharply.
Another concern is the temptation to reduce third level entrance requirements. With increasing spare capacity there is an increasing case for attracting more adult learners and for further strengthening the links between work and education. With the pace of change in our world, skills and occupations become obsolete within a matter of a few years. This poses a challenge to the third level sector in terms of its capacity to upskill its workforce. To deal with these changes the sector will have to restructure internally and show enough flexibility to succeed in a new and changing environment. The problems of spare capacity can also be addressed by attracting overseas students to our colleges. The Minister has established many contacts in other countries and there is huge potential in some of these countries where the Irish education system is held in high esteem. To realise that potential calls for a huge marketing job. One of the keys to this is to establish a guarantee for the quality of Irish education. This must be done in a way which is recognised and accepted internationally.
One of the principal areas of focus for the review team will be our binary third level system. Institutes of technology were established several decades ago to respond to an economy-linked need which was not being adequately met by other areas. The institutes have done an excellent job within their remit. The big question now is what to do with that system. Should we recommend to the review team that it be changed? The Higher Education Authority recommends that the sector's two main tiers should be brought under its ambit and says that such a development would ensure comparability between quality assurance systems. The HEA also says that this change would significantly enhance the flexibility and capacity of the institutes of technology in carrying out their core functions of teaching, research and service to the community.
I do not agree with the idea of dismantling our two-tier system. In the United Kingdom many polytechnics have been turned into universities, with disastrous consequences for the quality of that country's education. Our disproportionate share of US high technology firms and investment, compared with that of England, owes as much to the contrast between the two countries' education systems as to the difference between the tax incentives offered by the two Governments. Any significant blurring of the distinct roles operated by our two-tier system is unwanted, unwarranted and unacceptable.
There is huge potential for the development of the existing system but I will not have time to deal with that aspect of the issue.
We aspire towards quality. As well as having quality in the research departments of our universities and colleges we must aspire to quality in teaching. There is considerable recent anecdotal evidence that the quality of teaching by some college lecturers leaves much to be desired. This issue needs to be addressed. If we are to achieve the quality to which we aspire we must attach equal significance to the quality of our teaching as to the quality of our research departments.
We can realise all the objectives we like but if the excellence of our system is not underpinned by equity we will have failed the people we are mandated to serve. The current review must tackle the issues of equity together with future funding, management structures and quality across all sectors and at every level within all sectors. The task seems daunting but one of the best independent teams of experts is available to help us chart that course. I look forward to its recommendations. When those recommendations, unpalatable though they might be, become available——
I congratulate the Progressive Democrats on putting down this motion and on the wording of the motion. I welcome the Minister of State to the House. No amendment has been proposed to the motion because it would be difficult not to support it.
The Lisbon Agenda is well worded. I compliment the Government on having chosen, as one of the themes of its Presidency, the revitalisation of the Lisbon agenda, which everyone else in the EU seems to have forgotten about.
At the same time it is necessary to put the rhetoric of this motion into a context of reality. From reading the motion one would think the Government was the champion of the university sector, was in the universities' corner and in their supporters' club, recognising their achievements, cheering them on to better efforts and supporting them with the resources they need to do the job. Nothing could be further from the truth. The truth is that the Government is systematically starving the university sector of the resources it needs.
The Minister for Education and Science is engaged in what appears to me to be a vendetta against the universities. These are strong words. To hear the Minister speak one would think the universities are the problem whereas it is vital for the future of the country that the Minister sees them as part of the solution.
The problems of the universities are not of their own making. They arise directly from the fact that they are being starved of resources by the Government. Much of public administration is a battle for control, and education is no different. The Department of Education and Science appears to be composed largely of control freaks who have never been happy with the idea of a university as an autonomous organisation. The Department has refused to recognise that the autonomy of a university is one of its great strengths which should be preserved and nourished with the greatest possible attention. Instead, the Department has repeated that mantra that the taxpayer pays and the taxpayer should call the tune, without realising the implications of that mantra. There has always been a power struggle between the universities and the Department of Education and Science and in recent times this has got worse. It has been attributed to the fact that those within the Department who sought to bring the universities to heel have, at last, found their Minister. I am pleased the Minister is not here himself. I admire him considerably and I was actively involved with him when he introduced the plastic bag tax. However, I am concerned about his apparent hang-up about the universities.
Does the Government really know what is going on? I find it hard to believe that a Government could coolly make a decision to cut back the university sector. This is what the Government is allowing to happen, whether it admits it or not. I do not wish to present this issue in personal terms, but it seems the attitude of the Minister is a large part of the problem. The Minister, Deputy Noel Dempsey, is a man of great ability and I admire him in many ways. He has strong convictions and does not lack energy. However, he seems to have a blind spot where universities are concerned. Last weekend the Minister made yet another speech which was extremely critical of the universities. He criticised the universities for the fact that their students are unrepresentative of society in general. He said, "The vast majority of funding for the third level sector comes from the pockets of ordinary taxpayers who will never set foot in a university, ever, even once in their lives".
The Minister appears to be holding the universities responsible for the national scandal of educational disadvantage. It is hard not to be taken aback by that. Either the Minister is being disingenuous or he does not know his subject. Every expert in the area and every report on the problem in the last 20 years have hammered home the point that the unrepresentative nature of the university student population has its roots in early childhood and in a disadvantaged background which hampers children from their first day at school. Every expert in the subject has pointed out that no matter how hard universities work at access programmes — I have experience of the hard work they do — they will have only a limited impact on the problem. The real problem must be attacked much earlier, at a stage which is the responsibility of the Minister's Department and not of the universities. If I may say so, the Minister's remark was a cheap shot. It was unworthy of his office and it does a great disservice to the hard work that is being put in by a very large number of people across the entire university sector to address the access problem as best they can.
We know we have a problem that needs to be addressed. That particular remark got to me and is symptomatic of the problems we face at present. The Government can call in the OECD and ask for its advice on what needs to be done to create a world class research driven university sector. However, it should not be surprised if the response from the OECD calls its bluff. I look forward to hearing from the Government when the OECD focuses on the real problem, which is that the Government is starving the university sector of the resources it needs to go on doing the excellent job it has been doing for many years. Part of the problem is that we wear two hats. The IDA goes out proclaiming the marvellous university and third level educational background of our young people in marketing Ireland as a location for investment. Yet, we are starving education, and not only the universities, of resources. This is in the hands of the Minister and I would love to see him committing himself to doing something about the problem.
I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Michael Ahern, and I congratulate the Progressive Democrats on tabling this timely motion on education. The Lisbon Agenda sets out to improve competitiveness in Europe and good quality jobs are a priority, as the Taoiseach said at the spring Council meeting. In order to achieve this, we need to examine higher education. I congratulate the Minister on inviting the OECD to report on the role of education and the structures of higher education in Ireland.
In 1965 only 11% of the population went on to third level education, whereas today more than 50% of the population participates in higher education. Let us look at the growth and funding of the international student population. The number of educational institutions has mushroomed, with institutions in every major town. We need to take a planned approach to education and research and development in the third level sector. We need to consider what approach we should take to teaching and learning.
We must have a new structure to meet the demands of society. What has changed in the past two decades in higher education in terms of access and participation, lifelong learning, subject mix, availability and distribution of courses, research performance and contribution to society? There are no changes taking place in higher level education. Models will have to change if we are to measure performance and funding will be needed to deal with the outcomes.
We are having major discussions on access to education. I think it was Senator Dardis who questioned the points required to get a place in veterinary, radiography or medicine and whether a student must achieve 575 points, close to the maximum, to do medicine. We have very noble people in these professions, but we have to look at access as well as training and new teaching models. We have to look at the individual learner and how he or she is participating in higher education. The OECD will have to see how best to match funding with the outcomes expected by society in this millennium.
We have to consider duplication and whether the institutes should be offering various courses or engaged in research. Should we rationalise to make optimum use of the potential? Should we second people in the institutes to carry out research, although not necessarily every institute should be engaged in research and development?
There is a great deal to be looked at and if we do not do it, how will we have a vision for the future? I do not understand why anybody is objecting to this move. We need a new vision before we can bring forward a new model for funding. It is absolutely necessary and the OECD report will be the basis for discussion in the future. There will be accountability for performance and funding. We have to have quality assurance that all the courses on offer are validated and that with increased social mobility, course content and qualifications are recognised throughout Europe. We cannot be a knowledge based competitive economy unless we put resources into our students to achieve success. We are renowned for high academic achievement, but the outcomes need to match the funding.
Higher education will be required to be transparent and accountable and I hope when the OECD publishes its report it will endorse funding for the way forward. I would not ask for funding until I knew how the money would be spent and that the accountability and transparency of the education system and how teachers may be moved from one area to another had been examined so that we will be a competitive knowledge based economy by 2010.
I am glad we are having this debate, however brief, because what is happening in higher education, particularly in the context of Senator Quinn's contribution, deserves more attention. I share his view that the Minister's attitude to the universities is destructive, negative, unhelpful and the antithesis of what one wishes to be the outcome of the review. One can wish for all the wonderful things in higher education, with which I agree, but the Minister delights in taking cheap shots. The cheapest of cheap shots is the suggestion that somehow it is the universities' fault that levels of participation by disadvantaged groups is less than we would wish when pre-primary, primary and second level education is underfunded. Where one has under-funded primary, pre-primary and second level education with the generous distribution of State funds to fee-paying second level schools, the privileged, pampered children of the rich will be able to buy the quality of second level education which will guarantee their presence at third level. Whoever is at fault for that, it is most assuredly not the universities.
While I am not an unqualified admirer of the universities, the line the Minister for Education and Science is adopting is the most manifest nonsense. Since arriving here more years ago than we need to elaborate on, I have been an advocate of spectacularly increased investment in research. I have not simply been an advocate of the focused research much beloved of some State bodies, I believe we must invest heavily in fundamental research which does not have a clearly demonstrable, immediate commercial benefit. We must accept that by its nature fundamental research will not have commercial spin-offs in the short term.
We must be very careful when talking about the universities of the USA. While the USA has some of the best universities in the world, it is also home to a considerable number of the worst. We should be very careful to ensure we do not end up aping a model which gives us the worst of the US system without any of its quality. A former lecturer of mine in UCD, Dr. Paddy O'Flynn, addressed one of the nonsenses of the HEA in a short letter to The Irish Times when the issue of privatisation of some of our universities first arose. He pointed out that it was not Harvard's private status which made it so successful, it was its extraordinary wealth of the order of $30 to $40 billion in endowments. With that sort of money, it does not matter if a university is public or private. While they are fine institutions, we will not succeed in turning any of our universities into Harvard or Yale unless we undergo 100 years of prosperity during which a long list of benevolent philanthropists appears seeking to donate large amounts of money. We had one Mr. Chuck Feeney, but we will not get another one. He did a fine job while he was in the humour to do so.
I have one reservation on the motion, which disappoints me. Senator Minihan may correct me, but on examination, it appears largely to rehash the introductory paragraph of the Government's terms of reference for the OECD review. The word "teaching" is not mentioned in the motion at all. I was careful when I stated that I recognised the importance of research in third level education. We have a system of third level education in which there is no formal preparation of teachers to teach. When the RTCs were established, the steering committee responsible recommended that every person recruited to teach in the colleges should undergo a training period. The Department of Education and Science dropped that requirement, presumably, because it was too expensive to implement. People are being asked to teach who have never been trained to do so. Anybody who suggests that people who were never trained to teach should be evaluated 25 years later on the basis of their ability to do so is being profoundly unjust.
Most of us in the sector have learned how to teach the hard way. Nobody showed us how. I have supported the universities which have tried to a degree to create a mystique of research according to which it is suggested that in the absence of a high-powered research function, an institution will not be in a position to teach undergraduates adequately. If no research were being conducted anywhere, that would be true because no change or improvement would occur. The argument that fine researchers in a Department make for well taught students is wide open. The Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology in the United States of America has begun to signal that the obsession of universities with the generation of publications has caused them to neglect the teaching function. In the case of my own profession, the board has argued that while this practice has produced engineers who are extremely highly qualified academically, their skills are of little relevance to the work they will do on leaving college.
I am seriously concerned about the issue of quality assurance, not because I disapprove, but because we may find ourselves rediscovering the wheel. A considerable amount of quality assurance is in place at every level of performance.
While the HEA places us in the third band of those countries in which public funding of higher education is below 80%, the Department of Education and Science, interestingly, states that figure is closer to 90%. It is disturbing that the HEA and the Department cannot agree about how much money we are spending. A good number of the European countries in which the public sector contribution to higher education is higher than ours are those which are identifiably more competitive than us. We would be extremely well advised not to allow the deceptively low figures of the USA, Canada and Australia to lead us along a certain route.
The Democrat candidate for the US presidency, Mr. John Kerry, has adopted in his manifesto the aim of making college affordable for working families once more. US universities have been removed from the spectrum of ambition of working families.
I am very glad to have the opportunity to contribute to the debate on this motion and I congratulate the Progressive Democrats for tabling it. I declare an interest in that at least five members of my family are directly involved in university education while my father was a university professor for most of his life.
I regard education as a Government and infrastructural priority which is second to none. If I had to, I would put it ahead of roads and transport.
I would even put it ahead of health. If one had to pick one key to our future, it would be education. We must be conscious that a debate is under way all over the western world, certainly in western Europe, on the funding of third level education. The point must be made before we discuss where we are that enormous progress has been made, particularly over the last 15 years. There has been a significant expansion in third level education since the late 1980s. It is not only thanks to the HEA, but also, partly, to Mr. Chuck Feeney that we have seen a great many new buildings built on practically every campus in the country over the last four or five years. It is difficult to find one's way around. We have upped our game considerably.
Under discussion are profound problems, but there is also a short term issue. Last year the Minister obtained a substantial increase in maintenance grants. It was essential to resume full funding of research. Both of those factors led to a considerable increase in funding for third level education. Unfortunately the day-to-day functioning of third level took the brunt in order to satisfy the Department of Finance. Stop-go funding whether it is on research or on day-to-day funding of universities, is not a good way to proceed but I certainly hope that by next year at the latest, that dip will be restored.
I am a little puzzled to hear talk about third level education today being elitist. If there are between 40% and 50% of the age cohort attending some form of third level education that is not my definition of elitism. If the figure was 10% that would be elitist. On average, those who go into third level education will be more advantaged than those who do not. I accept that and I accept that ways and means are needed to broaden access. We have broadened access hugely, simply by moving from 10% to almost 50% attendance over the past 40 to 50 years.
There was great debate here last year about reintroducing college fees. Whether we like it not, and I will not go back over the history of the introduction of free fees or something close to free fees, if one discounts the registration fee, the middle class pays most tax.
It is a little bit like water charges, property taxes and so on. There may be a good theoretical case for introducing the various charges but the reality is we are a democracy and we have to pay attention to what the people want. It is clear the people want us to manage. They would take the view that they are paying for third level education largely through the tax system and they do not want to pay fees as an extra tax.
What worries me is the relative insecurity of many who work in universities, particularly the younger people at lower levels. If one is in cutting edge scientific research one may be reasonably well funded. I had a daughter who was funded by the Wellcome Foundation when she was doing doctoral and post-doctoral research. There are many who live on relatively short-term contracts with no certainty that they will be renewed. We are talking about competitiveness. If we want very good people to staff our universities we have got to find ways of rewarding them and I am not convinced we are doing that. There is much talk about the need for accountability, transparency and so on and I agree with that up to a point but we do not need a total bureaucratisation of universities. I do not want to see a good deal of money for third level education going into third level bureaucracy. I know from relatives who work across the water that they spend far too much time filling in forms, satisfying reviews and so on. I take Senator Ryan's point that quality in teaching is equally important to quality in research. Both are needed but they are not always found in the same person. Both are necessary within departments.
I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Browne. Like my colleague, Senator Ulick Burke, I am disappointed the Minister or the Minister of State did not see fit to come to the House and listen to the debate. It is unprecedented that we have had four Ministers here in the first hour of the debate. I wonder who will reply to debate or if there will be a reply.
I wonder whether the Minister will make any comment on it. It is obviously a sleight to the Progressive Democrats or else a complete lack of interest by the Minister in the subject under discussion. He has shown that on a number of occasions recently.
I welcome the motion. I listened attentively to Senator Minihan who asked some pertinent questions. One wonders whether his party was in Government for the past six years given that he has not got the answers. He made some valid points but I wonder what impact the Progressive Democrats has had on the education system, other than preventing third level fees, a battle it won hands down.
There has been an increase of approximately 74% in registration fees which probably compensates. In 2000, the EU leaders set themselves a goal that by 2010 the EU would be the most competitive and dynamic knowledge-based economy in the world, capable of sustainable economic growth with more and better jobs and greater social cohesion. They also wished to redress the position where EU universities have less financial resources than their equivalents in major competitor countries and also to invest 3% of GDP on research by 2010. That was the Lisbon Agenda. However, given the considerable funding difficulties that Irish third level education faces, it is difficult to see how these objectives can be met, especially within the challenging timescale of the Lisbon Agenda.
Although the Government frequently repeats the mantra that Ireland must become a high-tech economy with special emphasis on research and development, comparatively we lag way behind other countries with which we are in direct competition. The following statistics illustrate the point. Ireland is ranked 16th out of 28 countries in terms of spend on third level relative per capita GNP; 17th out of the 28 countries in terms of expenditure on educational institutions per student; and 10th in terms of cumulative expenditure per student over the average period of third level studies. Expenditure per third level student in Ireland is significantly lower than comparable expenditure in top ranked OECD countries. For example, it represents 54% of the spend of the US, 60% of the spend of Switzerland and 73% of the spend of Norway. We spend 1.5% of GDP on third level education compared with 2.7% for the US and 2.6% for Canada and Luxembourg, the top ranking countries. We spend only 0.3% of GDP from private sources on higher education compared with 1.9% in Luxembourg, 1.8% in the USA and 1% in Canada. Ireland's universities have a higher student-teacher ratio than universities elsewhere — we come 16th out of 20. These are damning statistics on third level education in Ireland. It is timely that the OECD should carry out this review and we look forward to its results.
Our universities and institutes of technology have played a major role in Ireland's economic achievements and the broader social development of the country. This role was accelerated in the 1990s when the third level sector was frequently spoken of as being the guardian of Ireland's future economic growth and security. This is an onerous responsibility but the universities and institutes should not be starved of funding as they are at present, as outlined by Senator Quinn and others.
Ireland has suffered considerable funding cuts in recent years which go to the heart of this sector. For instance, the Farrell Grant Sparks report on future funding of the Irish university sector shows that funding to universities fell by €1,240 per student in real terms between 1995 and 2001. Moreover, the failure of the Government to provide any increase in funding for universities in 2004 is tantamount to another 10% cut in funding levels, equivalent to €800 per student. Funding issues, therefore, are of critical importance to the future of third level education and ways of increasing funding must be considered.
Trends in the third level sector point to the increased importance of promoting enterprise and fostering research in our universities and institutes of technology. We need to enable the sector to respond quickly and innovatively to change and allow it to build relationships with business and enterprise, where such relationships will benefit both parties. In short, we must ensure the third level sector is given the tools it needs to cope with the demanding responsibilities placed on its shoulders.
We must not lose sight of the fact that education is a process not a commodity. It benefits the individual and society as a whole in all sorts of ways that are not necessarily quantifiable in terms of our national balance sheet. There will always be a need for those with broad and well rounded qualifications as well as those with specific competences. I commend the motion, notwithstanding my reservations, and I look forward to the OECD report.
I welcome this timely and useful motion which allows Members to debate a matter of substantial public importance. It was a man from Mallow, Thomas Davis, who coined the phrase "Educate that you may be free." In today's Ireland, that phrase became "educate that you may be employed", and then "educate that you may employ". The concept of education has changed greatly and the future of the Ireland and its economy is dependent on the quality of education.
The motion refers to the Lisbon Agenda, the European agreement to ensure that Europe will develop and grow into a a successful, knowledge based economy. At a meeting of the Committee on European Affairs last week, there was an interesting discussion on the economic challenges facing the European continent as well as on the Lisbon Agenda. I was struck by the current decline in the European population, which makes the continent in a sense the old man of the world. The issue of population is its major current challenge. The experts who attended that meeting made the point that the short-term solution is increased productivity and increased migrant labour. Nonetheless, the declining European population is an issue which would be worthy of debate here on another occasion.
I concur with the views of Members from all sides in regard to the motion, on which there is no question of a political divide. We should aspire to having every second level student move on to third level, which is no longer the stuff of dreams. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, it was inconceivable that every primary school pupil would move on to second level education. A political decision by the former Minister, Donogh O'Malley, to make second level education free changed the concept of education and opportunity. It quickly became the norm rather than the aspiration that all would attend second level. The plan of the Government must be to bring about a situation where every second level student will not just have but will take the opportunity to move on to third level. This will require funding and investment.
The only real debate on education over the past 18 months was on the issue of fees. It was often an emotional debate in which a heavy body of evidence could be presented on both sides. However, once the decision was taken in the mid-1990s by the former Minister, Ms Niamh Breathnach, that fees in the conventional format would not be paid, there could be no going back because the public would not accept any reversal.
The public recognises that even with free fees, education costs must be paid for. It is a question of where the investment comes from. Senator Cummins referred to the need to secure private investment and to have third level colleges and institutes work closely with industry and business, which is a wise analysis. We should not make education ideological. There is a tendency when discussing third level education and the possibility of funding from the private sector for research and development, for alarm bells to ring for a number of people. They see it as a dangerous step towards the privatisation of third level education, which is neither fair nor accurate. Taxpayers and Government can only contribute so much and we must look beyond them for the extra investment which will be required.
I am not an expert on the subject and take note of Senator Mansergh's contribution, in particular his comments on the funding of research, which is of critical importance for ongoing economic development. That this motion is before the House and that the Minister has requested a review must be welcomed. I note comments from a former Taoiseach, Dr. Garret FitzGerald, on the broader aspects of funding and payment, and such interventions and ideas are to be welcomed and, I hope, utilised to some degree.
It is the aspiration of every Member to have the level of funding required in the educational system, particularly at third level, in place for research and ongoing development. We should not work from the old-fashioned ideological stances of left and right. We must see the broader picture of investment in education, funding and research. This will be similar to the social partnership — all sides will be required to come on board and play their part. When the report comes back we will have a chance to study the options and while there may be difficult political choices to be made, it is the job of politicians to make those decisions.
I am pleased to contribute to the debate and I support the motion. We give lip service to the notion of access to education but I wish to raise the issue of adult education. Our focus on third level education is obsessed with those aged between 18 and 21. That is where funding and support are focused. If one adds up the total amount in subvention given by the State to an 18 year old who goes to college full-time, it is approximately €80,000 when one considers tuition fees, ongoing investment in the capital programme of the college and so on. However, there is not a cent for someone who leaves school at the age of 18 to go to work but decides, at the age of 25, to go back to education for a specific work-related course. I have come across countless examples of people of 24 or 25 years who want to go back to education either full or part-time but there is nothing for them. There is complete disparity between the funding given to 18 to 21 year olds and everyone else.
Everyone should be entitled at birth to an educational credit, money allocated to them by the State, which they can use at any time because our obsession with 18 to 21 year olds going to college is completely unfair. The review should focus on adult education, on how those in work can get back to education and on providing supports for those people. I specifically propose that every citizen should be given an educational credit they can use at any time of life, whether they are aged 60 or 26. The review should address this issue.
The funny notion which equates success with going to college should be challenged. The notion that everyone should go to college is bizarre, as is the idea that if everyone wants to go to college it shows how developed is our society. I was lectured in sociology by the very eminent Fr. Micheál Mac Gréil, who wrote Prejudice and Tolerance in Ireland before writing Prejudice and Tolerance in Ireland Revisited 20 years later. He said that if students wanted to know who they were going to marry, they should look beside them because education in Ireland was a form of class endogamy. He said students ended up marrying those sitting to their left or right in lecture theatres and he was right.
The middle class want to send their children to college because it is perceived as the successful route. It puts terrible pressure on people at 17 or 18 years of age to think that success for them, their family and their peer group is solely related to going to college. That does not lead to rounded individuals at all because people have no choice. The big determinant about going to college is neither fees nor the level of support offered to young adults, but peer group pressure. Huge pressure is put on people in pockets of Dublin because all their friends are going to college. They have no choice and if they do not get the particular course they are looking for then, they must do another year in school to get even higher points. Terrible pressure is put on children to get to the best colleges.
This works the other way also. I recently spoke to a constituent from a disadvantaged area who told me he left college primarily because he was slagged every time he went back to his own community. People in that community were not used to their children going to college and life was made difficult for him.
I have never bought the fees argument. Even if one brought back tuition fees one would do nothing for access to education because the big driver is peer pressure — the expectations of one's peers and parents about where one will end up. There is an educational snobbery about college in Ireland which is most unhealthy. Some of the best courses at the cutting edge of industry are in the institutes of technology, which have never received the recognition they deserve. This should be examined in the review.
The university sector has done very little to help children from disadvantaged communities get to college. Trinity College is right next to some of the most disadvantaged communities in the country, but what has it done to get children from those communities, a stone's throw away, into Trinity? Lip service is paid to disadvantage. I am aware of some access programmes being put in place but the university sector, irrespective of the Government, has an obligation to help children from those communities to stay in college. We should accept that one of the real reasons people leave college is because they are not socially accepted and because college is the preserve of the middle classes, to go back to the argument of class endogamy.
The universities have a huge role to play in reaching out to communities and in giving real supports to children from those communities who want to stay in college. Much of this comes down to attitudes in the university sector and I hope some of these points are taken up by the review group. I support the meritocratic approach to education. Those who want to go should go, but people should not be forced into education. Some of the best brains in Irish business never went near third level education, thank God, and that is one of the reasons they are so successful. We should not get hung up on the notion of success being equated to participation in college. I ask the OECD to consider that point.
I am pleased to give the Minister for Education and Science's position on the motion. I will focus on the Government's commitment to the development of our higher education sector with a view to the realisation of the agenda set for the EU in the Lisbon strategy. This commitment also dovetails with the theme the Minister has chosen for our education Presidency, Building an Inclusive and Competitive Europe.
Higher education in Ireland is in a period of transition. The sector has undergone massive growth over the past few decades from a time in the mid-1960s when it was an elite system with less than 20,000 students enrolled. The development of the institutes of technology and major advances in participation rates have been matched by huge increases in public investment in the sector over recent years.
The massive growth in numbers participating, from approximately 40,000 as recently as 1980, to over 130,000 now, and the associated public funding investment was a hugely significant factor in the Irish economic success story of recent years, with the availability of a highly educated workforce being recognised as a key attraction for inward investment.
The world moves on and we need to ensure our higher education system is both responsive to and leading change in the world around it. Economically, we now face new challenges, most fundamentally through the need to achieve a successful transition to the knowledge and innovation society that is key to our future competitiveness and prosperity. The higher education sector and our capacity to produce leading edge research will be central to that transition.
In social terms, Irish society continues to evolve rapidly. Education is a key instrument in achieving broad social cohesion objectives and there are particular challenges for the higher education sector in achieving greater rates of participation from the traditionally under-represented and socially disadvantaged sectors in our communities.
These converging strands, including future competitiveness through the development of our innovation capacity, greater equity of access, quality and levels of participation present challenges that are many and varied. However, it is not enough to state objectives. If Europe is to achieve the goals it established at Lisbon we must be prepared to take action and to pinpoint exactly where change is be embraced and the old order disturbed.
It was in the context of these strategic goals that I invited the OECD to conduct a review of higher education in Ireland. The review team has just spent two weeks in Ireland engaging in a wide consultative process with all of the key stakeholders both within the sector itself and in the wider economy and society. Peer review is critical if we wish to achieve the goals that we share with our partners across Europe. The OECD review will provide us with an international reference point for the Irish higher education system as we move forward towards our shared aims. The team that has just visited us brought an unprecedented wealth and spread of expertise to their task. The selection of such a high powered team is indicative of the OECD's appreciation of this Government's recognition of the fundamental importance attaching to the development of higher education.
The outcomes that emerge from this review will be important in shaping the future contribution of our higher education system to achieving the goals of the Lisbon agenda. However, it is important we do not lose time in working towards those goals. A key area of policy concern surrounds the identified aim of increasing the numbers of highly skilled graduates, in particular in the fields of science and technology. In order to achieve this, the recommendations of the task force on physical sciences are being implemented as resources allow and we are beginning to make good progress.
From first to fourth level, it is absolutely crucial that future policy development and implementation must strongly focus on the development of skills in science, technology and engineering. This objective has been a key catalyst for much of our education policy over the last three years. While the OECD Education at a Glance report for 2001 indicates that Ireland is ranked in first place in terms of numbers of science graduates at university level, we cannot afford to be complacent. All of us with an interest in Ireland's future economic development will appreciate the importance to our future competitiveness of ensuring the numbers participating in the sciences at second and third levels are maintained and increased.
Important progress has now been made in regard to curricular reforms at leaving certificate, junior certificate and primary level, all of which are being or have been supported by national in-service programmes for teachers. We have made substantial grants available to schools at both primary and post primary level, including a capital grants programme for senior cycle science ICT and science equipment and a once off grant scheme to assist with the implementation of the junior certificate syllabus which will cost approximately €12 million. More than €10 million in equipment and resource grants were received by schools between 1999 and 2002. ICT integration projects in teaching and learning have been developed under the schools IT initiative and a new SCOPE initiative has been developed in partnership with RTE, the NCCA and the National Centre for Technology in Education.
Furthermore, reviews have been undertaken on mathematics, the grading of subjects in the leaving certificate, gender equity issues in science, and initial reports on teacher training. There have also been developments in foundation, bridging and progression measures to promote access to the sciences at third level.
These are key developments in ensuring we continue to develop a scientifically literate population for the knowledge economy of the future. It is equally important, however, that the lifelong learning needs of our adult population are addressed if our full economic potential is to be realised. Overarching all of the improvements taking place in the education sector is the development of a national framework of qualifications by the National Qualifications Authority, which was published in October 2003 in response to a key recommendation of the taskforce on lifelong learning. This is a significant step which will improve access, promote flexible assessment and accreditation processes and enhance mobility across the further and higher education and training sectors. In this era of lifelong learning, issues of access and certification should be clear for all citizens and a seamless web should exist for learners throughout their lives to have the maximum opportunity for access to education.
Producing high quality science and technology graduates in the numbers required is one task. A further challenge for Europe is to retain these skilled workers within the Union. In January, Time magazine, in an article on this subject entitled "How to Plug Europe's Brain Drain," gave due credit and recognition to the fact that "the Irish Government has put a new emphasis on science, especially the kind that can benefit the rest of the economy". It is heartening to receive that kind of international endorsement for our policies. The article referred in particular to the developing role of Science Foundation Ireland, which has seen its funding grow by 62% in 2004.
Science Foundation Ireland is one element of Ireland's rapidly developing research infrastructure. This infrastructure, which is key to our future prosperity, relies on the higher education sector at its epicentre. In this context, the programme for research in third level institutions, PRTLI, which is developing the capacity to support institutional research strategies is critical to our future strategic development. In a move welcomed by all key stakeholders my Department has resumed capital funding under cycle three of the PRTLI in 2004. This programme has already had a profound impact on our research environment with more than 800 researchers being funded in our universities and institutes of technology and 62 research programmes in 33 new research centres in place. It has placed a major focus on inter-institutional collaborative programmes and interdisciplinary research. Separate programmes of support are also provided for the two research councils, namely, the Irish Research Council for Science Engineering and Technology, IRCSET, and the Irish Research Council for the Humanities and Social Sciences, IRCHSS, the technological sector programme, HEAnet and the North-South research programme. By developing infrastructure and building capacity in the higher education system, PRTLI is facilitating and enabling investments from a range of other sources, including industry. These synergies are imperative for the long-term development of the economy.
There is still a long road to be travelled by the Government so the commitment of funding to research and development is ultimately translated into the successful achievement of the Lisbon and Barcelona goals. The Barcelona target of 3% of GDP spending on research and development by 2010 is extremely challenging for governments and the private sector across Europe and points to a need for sustained shared efforts on a collaborative basis.
This is one element of the funding challenge facing higher education, both in Ireland and elsewhere in Europe. In Ireland, the proportion of moneys received by the universities from the State is now higher than ever before, averaging approximately 80% of public funding. Public expenditure on higher education has proportionately increased by 77% since 1997 and is among the highest in the OECD countries. I do not say that to decry the value of higher education. All taxpayers in this country are therefore making an enormous contribution to the higher education system, yet it remains the case that too few from the low socio-economic groups are enjoying a return on this public investment. It is imperative that we address this basic inequity. This is obviously important in social justice terms but also in terms of maximising the human capital potential of our population.
Higher education institutions must also acknowledge their accountability to the taxpayers, who are entitled to expect certain parameters of performance in return for the considerable public investment being made. As well as equity of access and relevance to economic needs, the institutions must be able to display a strong commitment to lifelong learning and standards of excellence in teaching, research and learning.
If we are to develop in line with our ambitions, we must address the difficult issue of future funding for the sector. We cannot afford to curb expansion in order to save money. We cannot increase the proportion of public money going into the third level sector at the expense of the rest of the education sector or at the expense of other sectors, such as health. Therefore, we must look at other ways of funding expansion that may involve increasing the private resources going into higher education.
It is important to raise the level of debate to include those questions and others relating to the dual roles of higher education, research and scholarship and how they can all be balanced in the development of this sector. The OECD review of higher education in Ireland has considered all those issues. Each step forward in addressing them will bring the Government closer to its common strategic role of making the European Union the most dynamic and competitive knowledge-based economy in the world by 2010.
I thank the Members of the House for the contribution that they have made this evening to this important debate, and I commend the motion to the House.
I thank the Minister of State for coming to the Seanad and placing on record the views of the Department of Education and Science. It is interesting that some of the previous speakers were critical that there was not going to be a speech from the Minister of State, and I hope they will take time to read it, as it might address some of their concerns.
The motion was tabled in the hope that it would afford Members of the House an opportunity to make known their views, which, it is to be hoped, the OECD review group would consider and take on board. I welcome the fact that the motion has not been opposed, but I am somewhat disappointed that many Members, particularly in the Opposition, did not avail themselves of the opportunity to speak to the motion, stick to the terms of reference or put on the record the changes they would like to see. A review is a review, and for Members to stand up in the House, defend the status quo and say that everything is rosy because they are on the Government benches was to waste an opportunity as it was for the Opposition to come in and attack the Government on one area — insufficient funding.
Some Members made valuable speeches, and I will go through some of the comments made. I mentioned, and a number of Members highlighted, the roles of teacher and researcher. We must be careful that we do not undervalue teachers and overvalue researchers, because the teachers will give us the researchers of tomorrow. I am also disappointed that we did not hear the Fine Gael proposals on governance, which is a much debated issue at the moment.
I thank the Members who spoke. I do not agree with those who said that the Government has a vendetta against third-level institutions. There is no evidence to support that. On the contrary, the evidence clearly states that we place a huge value on education. I agree completely with Senator Mansergh on how important education is for Ireland's future and how high a priority he would make it.
The Government's invitation to the OECD to review education is an admission of how important the Government considers education to be to the future of Ireland and its economy. The OECD review in the 1960s shaped the future of education in the country, and as the Minister of State said in his speech, the time has come now again for a review. There is no doubt that there is huge change in our approach to third-level education, and it is timely that Ireland be reviewed by outside experts who will give us food for thought.
I look forward to the debate on the publication of the review and I hope that, when we come to debate it, we will consider the future role of higher education, the strategic management and structures, teaching, research and development and how we invest in and finance our educational system. That is the purpose of the review, and I hope that we will learn from it.