Green light for new era of education?

 
 

In an unprecedented move, Ireland’s two largest academic institutions havecome together, but what does it mean for the country?, asks Shane Cranley.

The civil war is over. After flag burning, excommunications, and years of petty squabbling over who has more tanned Business, Economics Social Science/Commerce students, UCD and Trinity College Dublin (TCD) have realised the truth about university education in Ireland – symbiosis.

On 11th March the President of UCD and the Provost of TCD announced a research Alliance. The alliance, which will cost €650 million, has two phases. The first phase is the UCD / TCD Joint Venture in Enterprise Development, which will build on the universities’ existing technology transfer operations and enterprise facilities. The second is new UCD / TCD Innovation Academy will begin the process of defining and mainstreaming innovation as the third arm of the university mission alongside education and research.

What this means practically is that the first part will enable projects that begin in research to flourish. It provides the necessary frameworks such as legal, financial, and managerial in order to allow the business ideas get started.

The second step will allow particularly fourth level PhD students to exploit the different and complimentary strengths that UCD and TCD respectively hold. It will even lead to the granting of jointly awarded PhDs – a sign of the commitment of both institutions. It is also hoped that this combination will trickle down to the respective universities third-level programmes and even to second-level education to encourage the take up of maths and science.

The alliance will also facilitate the establishing of a corridor of research from Trinity to UCD. This will be a four-mile IFSC style incentive based zone for enterprises that stem from research.

All in all it is hoped that in ten years the alliance will have delivered 1,000 forth-level graduates to world class standards annually, established 300 new high value companies of scale, and see thousands of sustainable jobs follow, directly and indirectly.

So is this all too good to be true?

Well, the plan has many critics. The other universities are calling foul. They accuse TCD and UCD of being secretive and going behind the backs of the Irish Universities Association (IUA), the representative body of the seven universities of Ireland. They fear that this alliance will lead to the creation of a two tier university system.

This is a realistic fear and perhaps UCD and TCD were foolish in the way they negotiated this alliance, but it was necessary. It is unlikely that if they had done it through the IUA it would have been as quick and possibly not as far reaching. The other universities need to up their research game as opposed to criticising this step.

The numbers and details have also been criticised. The idea of 30,000 jobs being created has been proffered by UCD President, Dr Hugh Brady. That coming from 300 firms is unlikely as most start up scientific firms have nowhere near a hundred employees directly or indirectly.

Despite these concerns, the alliance delivers too many benefits to discount it. Ireland is a small struggling economy on the edge of Europe. The only way we can prosper is by building a knowledge economy. Central to this is that we need to produce workers of the highest calibre of education. For years, our greatest minds have been exported like a commodity. No economy or society can sustain this.

Ireland has to compete at the highest level. We need potential Nobel laureates who no longer must go abroad to get the experience. We need a coherent approach to university education that leaves the parish pump politics behind and embraces reality.

That reality is TCD and UCD are the only universities in this country in the top 200 of the world and between them they get over 50 per cent of the research funding in the state, producing over 50 per cent of the PhDs in engineering and science. It may be a bitter pill for the other universities to swallow but the truth is the only way Ireland can prosper is if its two biggest institutions merge at the highest educational level to foster the talent we have on this island.

If this alliance is successful it will mean that the students of Ireland will not have to take the boat in order to receive the highest educational standards in engineering and science. These brains will then go on to create ideas and enterprises putting Ireland at the forefront of the knowledge economy. No other country would be better placed to rise on the tide of future economic success.

To ignore this alliance for petty parochial, personal or historic reasons would be a heinous crime against the future of this state.

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