The rising student contribution charge, illness third level institutions dwindling position in the QS world rankings and proposed higher education merges are developments which mark a change in the face of the higher education system in Ireland. Ronan Coveney sat down with minister of education, Ruairi Quinn, to discuss fees, China and the future of higher education in Ireland.

In 2011, Ruairi Quinn made a pre – election pledge to the students of Ireland, at the gates of Trinity College Dublin. Quinn and the Labour party pledged not to introduce third level fees stating that if elected they would “oppose and campaign against any new form of third level fees including student loans, graduate taxes and any further increase in the Student Contribution.” However, when Labour entered into a coalition government with Fine Gael later that year, they did a u – turn, withdrawing their pre – election pledge to students and increasing the student contribution charge from €1,500 to €2,000.

Commenting on whether or not breaking his pre – election promise to students was the right thing to do, Quinn says that “I think it was the right thing, because, it was absolutely critical that there would be a change in government, it looked as if there was going to be a change of government back in 2007 and even back in 2002 and at the end of the day the Irish public seemed to indicate that unless they were given great assurances they wouldn’t vote for a change. I don’t regret doing it. I’m sorry that I wasn’t able to implement it, but by providing the clarity that’s there. I think I’ve ameliorated it. It has to be seen in the context of Northern Ireland and the UK. The cost of fees in Northern Ireland is close to €4000 as we speak, and in England and I think Wales as well but certainly England, for definite, it’s €9000.”

The government’s decision to hike the student contribution fee in 2011 was indicative of a trend which subsequently saw the steady increase of fees. The student contribution currently stands at €2,500 and is set to increase by €250 a year until 2015 .

When asked if the proposed increase is definite, Quinn suggests that there will be no change in the hikes, “we’re in a very difficult situation, which I bitterly regret. We haven’t finalised the precise amount of money that we’re going to have to get to reach our overall target, we don’t know how much central relief we’re going to get as distinct from having to find all of that within our own resources – I have no plans as of now to change the sequence when it went from 2000 up by 250 for four years in a row.”

Since the publication of the Hunt report, the  landscape of the third level sector in Ireland is changing. UCD has announced strategic alliances with both IADT and NCAD.  Quinn suggests that following proposals, there will be a radical reconfiguration of the third level education sector, “all of the third level colleges, universities and IOT’s were asked to consider regional educational clusters so that there would be cooperation and collaboration rather than duplication and the present landscape looks like the following: Galway, Sligo and Letterkenny are forming a Connacht-Ulster alliance. Waterford and Carlow are coming together to start the road of applying for a technological university Tralee and Cork IT are doing something similar, and DIT, Blanchardstown and Tallaght are proposing to merge and to apply for a technological university.

“You’ve already mentioned IADT in Dun Laoghaire linking with UCD and that will reinforce the link that has already occurred with the National College of Art and Design with UCD as well. And then Athlone is going to enter into some kind of structured relationship with Maynooth and Dundalk is going to do the same with DCU. So there is a very radical configuration.”

Speaking of the duplication of subjects across institutions, Quinn suggests that a more interconnected system of subject specialization could be beneficial, “every institution has tended to see itself as a little empire that wanted to add another dimension to what it was at, instead of looking down the road and saying well Galway University could do masters course in French and UL could do them in Spanish so that you’d share the arrangement of things.”

The QS World Rankings are widely regarded as an important indicator of how Irish universities compete on an international level and are important for international students considering studying in Ireland. This years rankings saw a general downward trend in the Irish university sector. The exceptions were National University of Ireland Galway and  Trinity College Dublin which rose six places to 61. However, UCD lost ground dropping from 131 to 139, much lower than its position of 89 in 2009.

Reflecting on the QS world Rankings, Quinn suggests that the QS rankings are not as important or indicative as they seem, “there are enormous flaws but they are like tourist guides, Third level education has now become an international activity, I don’t like the consumerist word commodity, but it’s an international activity both for students, but also both for staff … Tourist guides whether it’s Thomas Cook or the Lonely Planet, will give you a view or a window into what a particular place is in how you want to travel there or and what you want to do hear or see or do. There is evidence with the QS results with Singapore which has now moved into 24th in the world and when I was in China last year in Hong Kong, they just simply said to Singapore how much money do you need to become a world top university….and so they hire nobel prize winners to give courses, they increase their research, you can game any system.

“I think, gaming the system for the sake of gaming the system at the possible expense or cost of not improving the learning experience, the educational experience of students..There’s three things it seems to me that you need to get out of a university. There should be a good student experience, a good student education and I think 40% of the activity from the staff should be devoted towards ensuring that the quality of lectures is good, the quality of student experience, whether it in tutorial or group studies should be good. Research, and everyone should be doing research, it’s like continual professional development and renewal and then there’s pure research, there has to be and this is the ideal mix that has been conveyed to me by a number of academics – so you’ve 40% research, 40% teaching and quality outcomes and then 20% in the public space, public domain, commentating on what’s happening. Dermot Ferritor for example your historical professor who’s a very active man in terms of public commentary, he’s talking to the wider public and he’s also producing and writing an awful lot but he would be ok, a high profile person, but there are many others doing it. The educational experience of the student, the undergraduate has to be a quality issue and that’s where pressure on funding put pressure on the equivalent pupil teacher ratio in third level and it makes for the tutorial and graduate end of the spectrum suffer.”

UCD has been extending its relationship with China as highlighted by its establishment of a new Institute of Health Science and Innovation in Shenzhen University during the summer. When asked whether there are ethical implications for the university when working with a country with such a poor human rights record, Quinn defends the move.

“ I’d sooner be in China than shun it, I think the ultimate…I think international student exchange is going to be very different in 2050 than it is now. I think UCD has been right as indeed many other colleges from different other countries have established joint ventures with their academic counterparts and you cited two examples in UCD and China with the agricultural university. You’re going to see Chinese students and European students doing two years in one location and two years in and two years in another. I think the triumph of democratic and liberal values will in time take place in China, in a manner that nobody can predict.

If we only did business with or interacted with those people who we shared the same set of values and views it would be a very lonely place.

Last year the SUSI grant system debacle left many student with limited resources, following delayed processing and missed payment deadlines. Quinn suggests that the system is improving, “they got off to a very good start this year…The closing date for applications was the 5th of August, they’ve processed virtually all of those to date. They’ve refused about 7000, closer to 8000 on the grounds that they didn’t qualify. Household income or whatever it was. And about 1500 withdrew their applications.  So the rest are sitting approved ready to rock and roll.

“I think it will probably take about another 2 to 3 years before it’s up and running as smoothly as I would like it to be but I would at this point in time I’m expecting a significant improvement on last years experience,” he added.

With the newest budget released before the end of the month, Quinn is faced with a tough challenge – to balance current demands for austerity with the future of the higher education sector.