Today’s emergency meeting in Brussels to consider the threat to the Euro posed by the burgeoning debt of the PIGS countries – Portugual, Italy, Greece and Spain – may have some relevance to the current crisis in funding of Irish Universities, and the associated scepticism by some Irish commentators about the value of research investment in Ireland. Ireland shares with the PIGS one key feature – a history of chronic under-investment in its universities and research and development. That the group is PIGS rather than PIIGS is only down to to the recent drastic action taken by the Irish government. Both Ireland and Spain have in very recent times significantly increased their investment in research from negligible levels, but you cannot build good universities in a decade – these are resources which, like the railway system, require major investment and a lot of maintenance and upkeep. Germany, France, Netherlands and most other non-PIIGS countries have maintained a very strong (if in some cases patchy) higher education system and much higher levels of research investment than even the highest recent levels of Ireland and Spain. Is it a coincidence that it is these non-PIIGS who will be bailing out the PIIGS and saving the euro? I don’t think so: strong economies grow out of high quality, research-oriented, higher education and research institutes. Unless Ireland really gets serious about building properly competitive international-level universities – and introducing student fees is the ONLY way to do this given the government’s financial position – then we really will be running about among the PIIGS in coming years.
The Minister of Education should surely try to align his arguments with government policy. The smart economy funding survived the recent budget in spite of McCarthy’s bizarre recommendations that only research that had a commercial output in 5 years should be funded. The universities, for better or worse, are one of the main vehicles for delivering the government’s agenda. For the Minister of Education, part of a government who has decided on this policy, to complain about university professors and lecturers spending too much time on research is bizarre. A research active academic in a science/technology/medicine area is essentially like a small business person trying to find and provide employment for a team of researchers. Personally, I have a very large administrative and teaching (informal) workload trying to supervise, recruit and keep the grant funding coming in for around 20 people – from PhD students to postdocs. It is time that research active academics who are providing this sort of input to the economy are accorded the same status and recognition as the CEO’s of SME’s – lauded by the government – most of whom are providing employment to many fewer people, and most of whom are not contributing to the upscaling of the smart economy value for the country. I challenge the Minister of Education to come and meet some of these academics and to base his future on facts rather than on the sort of hearsay ‘anecdata’ that conversations with a couple of (I wonder how research active?) professors that he has spoken to.