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Research, New Universities, and the Beausang Letter

An overview of higher education in Ireland in 2019

John Walshe
Irish Independent

2019 was marked by shifts in policy that will significantly alter the higher education and research landscape in Ireland in the coming years. The most obvious result is that the number of universities will virtually double. This article looks at the arrival of Technology Universities and the future of science research policy in Ireland.


2019 has been marked by several shifts in policy that will significantly alter the higher education and research landscape in Ireland over the next few years. The most obvious result is that the number of universities will virtually double from seven to thirteen. This is happening without much public discussion of the impact on the sector. Four new Technological Universities (TUs) will be created, in addition to TU Dublin, which opened this year. The Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland will be upgraded to university status, assuming that Education Minister Joe McHugh signs the necessary order following legislative changes made this year. 

The changes won’t stop there. During the year the Higher Education Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor launched a consultation on legislative plans to bring about regulatory changes in higher education. These include altering the governance structures of higher education institutions (HEIs) and replacing the Higher Education Authority (HEA) with a Higher Education Commission. The HEA, since its establishment in 1971, has acted as a buffer between the HEIs and the Department of Education and Skills (DES), and some academics fear that the new body will have less autonomy. 

Two other changes are worth noting. The new Commission will be given regulatory oversight of private and not-for-profit higher education (HE) providers. It will also have a pivotal role, alongside the DES, in developing national strategy for HE and HE research. That reference to a ‘pivotal role’ is easily glossed over, but in October an extraordinary letter spelt out in great detail the evolution of the DES’s thinking on who should control science research policy in Ireland. The letter was written by William Beausang, DES assistant secretary in charge of tertiary education, who is the driving force behind many of the changes. It is worth reviewing in some detail, but first let us look at his career to date.

The new assistant secretary general

William Beausang transferred from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DPER) to the DES in 2018. Before that he was in the Department of Finance, where he was involved in some major discussions about the banks during the financial crisis. Never one to mince his words, he once told the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council its analysis on a particular issue ‘falls short of the quality standard I would have expected’, and said the Council’s work on setting expenditure ceilings by the government ‘lacks a basic coherence’.

Beausang unexpectedly applied for the job in the DES to take over responsibility for higher education, succeeding Mary Doyle, who retired from the post. The opportunity was used to amalgamate the sections in the DES that dealt separately with further education and higher education. Not before time, the new tertiary division was formed.

In the DPER, Beausang had held various posts, including head of the Central Expenditure Policy Division. Higher education was familiar territory to him, as he showed in 2016 in a paper to the Higher Education Colleges Association in which he outlined the challenges facing the sector. He acknowledged that while primary and secondary education were safeguarded in the financial crisis, higher education had been badly hit:

  • third-level funding decreased from 20% of the DES budget in 2008 to 17% in 2017
  • student numbers increased from 150,000 to 190,000 
  • staff numbers decreased by over 15%.

‘This resulted in the student to staff ratio increasing from 16:1 to 20:1, and core funding per student decreasing from €12k to €9k,’ Beausang wrote. Since then the financial challenges facing higher education are slowly being addressed amidst rising student numbers. There is increasing pressure on HEIs to align more closely with national, social, and economic needs, especially in skills. A good example is the €300m Human Capital Initiative, which places huge emphasis on creating job-ready graduates.

Research and SFI

Beausang’s reluctance to accept things as they are without interrogating them is confirmed in the fascinating five-page letter he sent to Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) in October 2019. It followed a meeting between the DES and SFI to discuss SFI’s draft strategy for 2020–2025.That meeting, according to Beausang, highlighted the divergent views between them. 

He warned SFI there was a clear risk in the development of its strategy. It was missing a wider perspective and was progressing out of step with other developments in the national and higher education research system. ‘This serious concern is at the core of the reservations expressed at our meeting,’ he wrote.

There is a responsibility to ensure that individual strategies are aligned to and follow national policy and strategy. Rather than just a reference, there needs to be more direct alignment and representation in SFI’s strategy of what it can do to contribute to the achievement of Ireland’s national policy objectives under strategies such as Project Ireland 2040, the Future Jobs Initiative, and the National Skills Strategy.

Beausang suggested that the draft SFI strategy did not adequately recognise the location of research in the higher education system and the centrality of that system for the delivery of a wide range of objectives for national policy, ‘not solely restricted to research, which is in the interest of SFI’. The letter continued:

In other words, SFI must, in setting and monitoring the objectives for the work that it funds, recognise that the organisations that it works through i.e. higher education institutions, also work within a broader framework of national objectives. For instance, rather than making a proposal to develop a ‘world-leading research training framework’ for the sub-set of researchers that it funds it would be better for SFI to turn its attention to the National Framework for Doctoral Education, which has been created and supported by all the research funders (including SFI) and the higher education institutions and which facilitates consistent excellence across all postgraduate education and training.

The letter must have been sweet music for researchers in the universities, especially when it said that talent development is central to our higher education system. It added:

The future success of Ireland’s ‘knowledge economy’ will rely on the skilled graduates coming through the tertiary education system. It is essential that we do not duplicate efforts or, worse, create a two-tier system, at post-graduate level. Consistency in the educational experience is also an important element of Ireland’s international reputation.

Just in case the point was not sufficiently clear, it was repeated more directly: ‘it is the HEIs themselves who are in a position to carry out high-quality research, not any funder or agency.’


Meanwhile, the HEA acquired a new CEO, Dr Alan Wall, who is also known to have a keen interest in the research agenda. In his letter, Beausang talked up the role of the HEA in the strategic direction of the higher education system and stressed the need for a strong collaborative approach: ‘The HEA is therefore more than just one of the many parties to be consulted with in the formulation of your strategy. In this Department’s view, additional significant consultation and engagement with the HEA is essential to putting a successful strategy in place.’ No solo runs for the SFI in deciding research policy, is the obvious message.

The letter also emphasises the need for balance across research, institutions, and regions:

A balanced higher education system – and, within that, higher education research system – is essential for future success, sustainability and resilience. A balanced higher education research system is also the key to our national preparedness to engage with a rapidly evolving research environment, such as EU developments relating to the design of Horizon Europe. It is critically important that, in pursuing its organisational objectives, SFI supports and enables the HEA in the achievement of a balanced system.

It added: ‘Besides, research is generally performed by HEA core-funded staff within the higher education research system. Any future development of the SFI Research Centres programme needs to recognise that the HEA core funding is an essential part of their operation.’ To which the only response can be ‘Ouch’. Beausang argued that it may not be prudent, or indeed possible, for SFI to pursue its strategy to completion before the successor to Innovation 2020 had been determined. That separate strategy is being prepared by the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation.

‘A scenario in which the completion of the SFI strategy precedes the development of the new national research and innovation strategy clearly runs the risk of disconnect between national, sectoral and agency-level strategies,’ the letter warned. It further suggested that the new SFI strategy might well be served by an exposition of SFI’s statutory functions:

There are risks associated with extending the scope of the organisation’s remit too broadly, as this can lead to a loss of focus, challenges in reconciling competing priorities and potentially impacting on the prioritisation of core work. This can also give rise to difficulties where funding and resources are not available to match the scale of strategic ambition. There are a number of aspects of the draft strategy that overlap with policy areas for which a lead role has already been assigned to government departments and other agencies.

It added, again pointedly:

For example, the document outlines a strategy to develop a process to scope out Ireland’s future economic and societal needs. Aside from the point that has already been made about the need for joined-up approaches to these matters, the infrastructure for this work already exists in the form of a National Skills Council, Regional Skills Fora and the Expert Group on Future Skills Needs.

The letter is illuminating and echoes the view held by many in higher education – and obviously in the DES – that SFI is overextending its reach, that it is focused too narrowly on research that leads only to jobs, and that fundamental basic research is in danger of being overlooked. This view is rejected by the formidable SFI director general, Prof. Mark Ferguson, who argues in favour of research that has impact. 

Ferguson, a canny political operator who argues his case trenchantly, won’t take the letter lying down. Whether or not it leads to a serious turf war between the DES and the Department of Enterprise, to which SFI is accountable, remains to be seen. That is the last thing that higher education or the research community needs. 

Technological Universities 

While the traditional universities will be satisfied with much of the letter, they may be surprised by the extent of the research role envisaged for the emerging Technological Universities (TUs). The first TU opened in Dublin in January, a merger of Dublin Institute of Technology and the Institutes of Technology (ITs or IoTs) in Tallaght and Blanchardstown. Four other TUs are planned, arising from mergers between nine IoTs around the country. It’s not clear yet what will happen to Dundalk IT and the Dublin Laoghaire Institute of Art, Design and Technology, which is also an IoT.

Most ITs have their origins in Regional Technical Colleges that date back mainly to the late 1960s and early ’70s. Dublin and Limerick ITs have their roots in earlier colleges of the 19th century. All were renamed and upgraded to Institutes of Technology in the late 1990s after political lobbying and student protests.

While the rebranding satisfied some, Dublin and Waterford continued campaigning for full university status. Dublin had tried unsuccessfully before, and the demand for a university for the south-east began as early as the 1840s around the time that Queen’s University of Ireland was founded, when politicians in Waterford made strenuous efforts to locate a university in their city. Instead, constituent colleges were set up in Belfast, Cork, and Galway. Politicians of all hues have been lobbying ever since in Waterford, with considerable public support.

The Hunt Report

The campaigns for university status took a different direction upon publication of the long-awaited report of the National Strategy Group on Higher Education in 2011, which became known as the Hunt Report after its main author, Dr Colin Hunt. In a blow to Waterford IT’s ambition to gain full university status in its own right, the Strategy Group recommended a ‘process of evolution and consolidation’ for the institute sector. After amalgamating with other institutions, IoTs could be eligible to apply for ‘designation as a technological university’ rather than becoming a fully fledged university in their own right.

Few at the time envisaged that virtually all the institutes would consolidate to become TUs – but that’s what is happening and, as the Beausang letter to SFI made clear, with official support and high hopes for their future. It referred to the

disappointingly brief and limited reference in the draft strategy document to the emergence of Technological Universities (TUs) as a very significant new element of the higher education research landscape. The establishment of the TUs is the single most important development in the HE landscape over the next number of years and warrants a significant focus in the SFI strategy.

The letter also referenced the setting up of a high-level group comprising TU Dublin, the consortia seeking to develop TUs, the Technological Higher Education Association, the DES, and the HEA. This Technological Universities Research Network (TURN) Working Group considered and evaluated the critical success factors necessary to create, develop, and sustain high-quality TUs across the country. A key theme of its work was to develop research capacity for the new TUs. 

‘In this Department’s view this question of TU research capacity is directly germane to the strategic plans of SFI, and therefore merits being incorporated into the Foundation’s strategy and plans,’ the letter added.

Government promises €120m for TUs

The government is also putting its money where its mouth is, as shown in Budget 2020 and in subsequent announcements of extra funding for the four other TU development consortia. The most recent is the Limerick IT tie-in with Athlone, which came as something of a surprise: earlier, it seemed to be throwing its lot in with the University of Limerick. A change of personnel at the top in both colleges led to a change in approach. It was obviously one that found political support and one that will, no doubt, feature at election time.

As Minister Mitchell O’Connor said at the launch of the TURN report on 6 November:

Our objective is to have a Technological University presence in every region of the country. This will provide increased choices for students, an enhanced student experience and greater access for potential students tackling educational disadvantage. TUs will offer a deep and broad range of teaching, from apprenticeship to doctoral degrees. They will also support an increased intensity of research activity, which will deliver benefits for students, staff, employers, and local communities, opportunities for collaboration with industry, and benefits for the economy and wider society.

She gave an update on the current state of play with the other institutes:

  • The MTU (Munster) consortium, comprising Cork IT and IT Tralee, submitted an application for TU designation in February 2019. The Minister for Education and Skills postponed granting the application until no later than the end of Q1 2020, subject to compliance by the consortium with specified conditions to meet the eligibility criteria under the Technological Universities Act 2018.
  • The TUSEI (South-East) consortium, comprising IT Carlow and Waterford IT, is developing an application which is expected to be submitted in the coming months.
  • The Connaught Ulster Alliance consortium, comprising Galway–Mayo IT, Letterkenny IT, and IT Sligo, is developing proposals with a view to submitting an application in the 2020/21 academic year.
  • Athlone IT and Limerick IT recently received 2019 funding for proposals through which the two institutions jointly agreed to form a development consortium with a view to making an application for TU designation.

The TURN Report

The TURN Report makes 12 recommendations for outcomes that will provide TUs with a solid foundation for development. These centre on three thematic areas that TURN identified as the essential building blocks for success: 

  • investment in integrated multi-campus digital infrastructure to provide regional cohesion and facilitate new modes of learning and the prioritisation of capital investment in TUs
  • investment in research capacity-building by developing researcher human capital, facilitating research activity and opportunities for existing academic staff, and implementing a researcher career-development and employment framework, addressing infrastructural deficits and prioritising research strategies in TUs, exploiting fully the mutually supporting roles of teaching and research
  • realignment of the policy framework and funding for TUs, including an expansion of institutional autonomy and reform through implementation of TU-apposite career structures, reform of the grant allocation model to accommodate TUs, creation of a dedicated TU funding stream including in the post-establishment phase, and creation of a borrowing framework for TUs. 

The Minister said that the existing landscape restructuring fund for TUs will now be replaced by a new TU Transformation Fund which will see TU-oriented funding increase to over €120m in total by 2023. The clear message from Ministers McHugh and Mitchell O’Connor and from the DES as confirmed in the Beausang letter is one of enthusiastic support for the technological sector.

While TU Dublin has got off to a good start with a terrific new campus at Grangegorman, the whole concept of technological universities is still relatively new for Ireland. Creating five of them in a short time carries risks but also provides an opportunity to bring a whole new dynamic to Irish higher education. 

The investment of over €120m for TUs is sizable and sends a clear signal about government priorities, which should be noted by the traditional universities. They may feel overlooked in this official rush to embrace the new. The fact that they have slipped down international rankings hasn’t helped their mood. But their graduates are still very employable, and they are still making an immense contribution to Irish society and the economy.

The extent of that contribution was quantified in research by Indecon on behalf of the Irish Universities Association. The Impact Study examined a variety of areas to assess universities’ impact on research, society, the economy, and individuals, including the benefits arising from international students. Predictably, the headline-grabbing finding was the €8.9b contribution they make to the economy – but there were other interesting findings: 

  • There has been a significant increase in the number of students enrolling for a university education, which correlates with the demand for more highly skilled employees in the Irish economy. In 2017 over 120,000 students enrolled, up 50% from 2000.
  • Indecon identified a cumulative net gain to the Exchequer of €1,606m in net present value terms based on the lifetime net earnings projections for the new entrants to the seven universities in 2017–2018. This is based on a net gain to the Exchequer from the lifetime earnings of individual undergraduate degree holders of €62,000. In other words, the Exchequer gains a net €62,000 over the lifetime of the graduate in today’s money terms when all costs to the Exchequer are taken into account.
  • University graduates generate an income premium significantly beyond those with no third-level education and have consistently lower unemployment rates, even during recession.
  • The average lifetime net premium for an Irish undergraduate degree holder is €106,000, compared to a UK premium of £88,000 for graduates from the prestigious Russell Group universities. Master’s degree holders’ net premium rises to €146,000 and PhDs to €222,000. These figures are net of tax, and factor in the costs incurred by students in obtaining their degrees and income foregone during their years at university.

The higher education system in Ireland has often been viewed as a hierarchy, with the traditional universities on top. That may change with the arrival of a much more dynamic technological sector. Creating five new Technological Universities in less than a decade is a brave and noble experiment. They will need substantial funding and support to succeed. Parents, students, employers, investors, and the public will also have to be convinced that the TUs live up to the high expectations being created for them.

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