The following interview was conducted by Ferdinand von Prondzynski with Brian Hayes TD, Fine Gael front bench spokesperson on Education and Science, on July 20, 2009.
FvP: I’d like to start with a question about ‘An Bord Snip Nua’. The report was published last week and there is quite a lot in it on higher education. At a general level, what is your impression on what it says about higher education? Do you think that the report gets it about right or do you have issues with it?
BH: Well, I want to say that no Department should be immune from the inevitable cutbacks that will follow, and the idea that the education budget is going to be ringfenced and no cutbacks will follow is not realistic. What we have got to do is try to work out an envelope of funding for the years ahead which will allow us to dedicate resources to front line services. This would apply to higher education as it would to primary and post-primary education. It is inevitable there will be cutbacks, and we’ve got to work with the government to see what areas we can agree, and wheree we disagree. One suggestion I would like to make is that all the partners in education, and particularly those in higher education, should set out their views as to where they believe efficiencies can be found, and I would hope that possibly in the second or third week in September all of the universities and colleges and all of the partners in higher education would come before the Oireachtas Joint Committee and present their positions. Then we can see if there is some measure of agreement on this.
FvP: Are you formally going to propose that idea?
BH: Well this is the first opportunity for me to raise it. I’m speaking at the MacGill Summer School on Thursday morning and this is one of the ideas I’m going to put forward.
On the issue of the‘An Bord Snip’ report itself, one of the things I very much welcome is this idea to radically improve coordination between the IOTs and the universities – this is long overdue. I think it is inevitable that we should consider the potential for greater economies of scale.
On the other hand, I very much disagree with the proposal not to proceed with the Grangegorman development for DIT. I think that’s a retrograde step, since we’ve already committed a lot of funding. We should now allow the development to proceed, and this would be good for the economy, good for the building industry, and of course for DIT.
FvP: In the context of the ‘An Bord Snip’ report, what are your views on what it says about research and R&D?
BH: Well, one of the lines they have used is that there isn’t enough evidence concerning the impact of research funding. I think that they are spot on about that. We have committed very substantial sums of money, albeit from a very low base, for the next number of years, with PRTLI and SFI, and I think that we have to analyse whether we are getting value for this money. Given the amount of money that’s involved and how much that represents as a proportion of the national education budget, we have to assess the impact carefully. An Bord Snip have called for cutbacks, and I’m prepared to look at this, but I would have to be convinced of the merits of the argument before I’d agree on the specific recommendations.
FvP: The IDA have said a few times that most of the foreign direct investment they’re bringing in at the moment is in the knowledge intensive or R&D sectors, and that companies have been attracted by the greater research performance and capacity of universities and other institutions. Are you saying that you are not convinced of this?
BH: Well, at a time when we are reducing the number of teachers by 2000 in the primary and post primary sectors we have got to prioritise funding. So where we can be shown that the research expenditure leads directly to commercialisation of products and new jobs in the economy, I am very happy to support it. However, the idea that there will be no cutbacks in the budget for research and development is fanciful, given that state of the economy and the state of the national finances.
FvP: Can I turn then to a more general question about higher education reform? You are on record as favouring reform across the sector, and in fact you have said that as the funding environment for the institutions is adjusted, it cannot be “business as usual”. Can you maybe set out a bit more what you think the major reform needs are for the sector at the moment?
BH: As you know the Higher Education Strategic Review Group is working on this at the moment. I understand they are going to bring forward their proposals some time in November or December of this year. My argument has been that you cannot decouple the notion of funding from reform. If we are asking students to make a new contribution – and in many cases it would be a significant contribution – towards their education, it must mean there will be a radical change in universities and institutes of technology. This must include an assessment of the relationship between the student and the university, and if we are asking people to pay for their studies then we have to be prepared, in my view, to bring about major change. We need to have greater accountability in the way in which programmes are delivered, in the way core teaching is carried out and student services are provided. I am not convinced as I visit the colleges that students are really involved or participating in the quality assurance system. Overall, I think we need to demand much greater transparency in the way in which universities and colleges deliver education to their students.
I also think it is very important that we focus on how third level courses respond to the need for both employees and skills in the economy. I think the idea that we offer courses on subjects where there are few available jobs is not viable.
Reform also needs to address student support services, improved contact hours for students, counselling, library facilities, and so forth. So my view is that reform needs to be a priority within the colleges, and of course it has to be externally driven as well. There also should be greater co-ordination between universities and institutes of technology.
FvP: Maybe I could now turn to funding. You have been very active in stimulating debate on this. Recently you have indicated that you think you might be willing to consider the government’s likely proposal that there should be a system of student loans, and see whether it can be reconciled with your own proposals on a graduate tax paid after graduation through PRSI system. Do you see agreement between Fine Gael and the government as a possibility?
BH: Well yes, that’s why I think the government should publish the paper that was leaked to about four journalists only two weeks ago. My understanding is that the cabinet has this paper, and there has been a brief discussion on it. It has been leaked, and so the paper itself should now be published. I think it is important that we should have some public consultation on this. It is wrong at this stage to exclude the opposition, who have been holding out an olive branch, and equally it is wrong to exclude universities and institute of technologies from the debate. I have seen that you have said so yourself, and I agree with you. We need to have a debate about this, and the Minister will never have such a good opportunity again to make the change by consensus.
So, I hope he publishes the cabinet paper before it is considered again in September. As to whether or not there could be some partial agreement between my proposal and what Batt O’Keefe may propose I am ready to talk constructively, as I said in the Irish Times two weeks ago. The Minister seems to have gone off the idea of the re-introduction of fees, and I welcome that, because that was very much on the agenda until Christmas. But exactly how his Australian-type loan type system could be married with my proposal, which is basically that you pay back a contribution to your third level education through the tax system. How those can be married together is what I am interested in hearing from the Minister.
FvP: In relation to your proposal, as well as the Minister’s, one specific thing that has concerned me slightly is how we deal with people who have gone through the Irish system of higher education and have been funded in doing so and who then leave the country. They would then be outside the net, but they are probably the people who should be paying more than anyone else because the benefit of what has been invested in them is going to be enjoyed somewhere else.
BH: Well there are two issues there. The first issue is in the argument that by having such a system you might encourage emigration. I don’t agree with that. I think the notion that, if you are going to have to pay maybe €2,000 or €3,000 or €4,000 contribution a year for 5 to 6 years, this is going to persuade you to emigrate is nonsense.
The second issue is the one you raise, which is how we can ensure that those who do emigrate still make their contribution. What I’ve said in the past is I think we should look into entering into third country agreements where the tax system could be used as a means of making sure that the graduate pays back their contribution. We already have such a system for other purposes, including welfare contributions and pension contributions, and I don’t see why we cannot extend the system to include graduate contributions to higher education. I think a little bit of ingenuity, particularly in the EU context, would be required; but I think it is possible.
FvP: Can I just turn now to the employment control framework, under which universities and other institutions are in future to be prevented from making recruitment and selection decisions where there are vacancies, except in very rare circumstances, and in any case never without the consent of the government. What is your general view of this, and do you agree with that it’s a good way to go?
BH: No, it’s utterly daft, and I’m on the record as saying so, and I’ve raised it in the Dail and with the Minister. It cannot make sense that we are asking large administration systems like universities in particular not to recruit additional people in areas where, for instance, there is future employment or commercial potential. I know many colleges will have international students coming into courses next year, and these will be paying full fees and will increasingly represent a larger part of the student body. With the proposed Stalinist approach to recruitment universities would not be able to staff the programmes taken by these students. My simple solution to this: we would ask the universities and institutions to live within their budgets. We give them a budget, and it is up to them to determine how that budget is spent. To introduce some kind of Stalinist system whereby every new appointment must be sanctioned by the HEA and ultimately by the Department of Finance is daft, and as I said I think a solution has to be found around giving financial autonomy to the universities, in particular asking them to determine what are their priorities. If that leads them to reduce staffing in one area and increasing jobs in another, that is up to them ultimately.
FvP: This touches on the question of university autonomy. Do we maybe need to have a national debate on what university autonomy means and how it should be exercised?
BH: Well I presume that will be covered in the report that’s due out later this year, but I think that a national debate is a good thing. The state is making a very substantial contribution to higher education, maybe low by international standards, but over what €2.2 billion a year. The taxpayers are paying for it, and the Oireachtas has voted for it. While no-one wants to demolish the notion of individual universities determining their own agenda, there has to be a connectivity between what the state wants to do and what the higher education sector actually does. I think we have to have that debate and we have to be open and up front about it.
One of the things that I have suggested in my reform agenda is that we might move higher education away from the Department of Education and Science and to a new Department of Enterprise, Training and Learning. The Department of Education and Science necessarily tends to concentrate on schools, and not enough focus is placed on higher education in my view. I think we have to link higher education with skills, with innovation, with new employment areas and new technology. We have to be much more focused in my view on making sure that higher education responds to the demands for courses which are industry-led. This requires collaboration between higher education and industry.
I also wonder whether higher education has to interact with too many offices and agencies. I have seen that An Bord Snip believes that the HEA should be brought into the Department of Education itself. I have an open mind about that, but ultimately I think we have to be much clearer about our objectives..
FvP: I would like to ask you a final question that is not on higher education. I am a member of the National Competitiveness Council and some years ago, in 2003 I think, the Council issued a report in which it pointed out that our under-investment in pre-school education was potentially damaging the country, including the country’s economy, and that there was an international benchmark that suggests that investment in pre-school education is extraordi8narily good value for money. Can I ask you what your view is on pre-school education and what, as a country, our actions or priorities should be?
BH: Well, I have a particular interest in this as I have three children under 7, and this has been a big issue in our household over the past number of years. I have to say that when we come to assess our actions over the past 10-12 years, we will be shown to have failed completely to put in place a proper pre-school system of education, which is in place in every other advanced economy that I know of. It makes no sense in terms of labour market requirements and in terms of general educational requirements for children going into primary school that we do not have a pre-school system in place; it is really a great scandal. This should have been a priority over recent years, and I think history will judge us to have failed our children and our society. Going into the future we must still do it, but it is now going to be done with much smaller budgets, and ultimately this may require some kind of incentivisation between the private and public sector providers. We will have to deliver at least one year in my view. That should be a national goal, and a national priority