Provost expresses support for student fees, defends industry links


Provost Patrick Prendergast this morning defended student fees and backed Irish universities’ industry links at the Irish Universities Association (IUA) symposium in the Royal College of Physicians. In the opening speech of the day-long event, he spoke about the importance of funding education through student contributions and opening up universities to multinational corporations.

“We should admit openly that we need students to invest in their own education,” he told the symposium. “Like everyone in higher education, I understand the imperative of bringing social mobility into the equation. Unfortunately, abolishing fees did not bring about greater social mobility. Ireland [still] has particularly low intergenerational social mobility.”

He said that “equity of access” should be a priority for university management, but that it should not be confused with the issue of third-level fees. Means-tested grants and access programmes are more effective at bridging the equity gap, he said.

Prendergast also spoke about the need to “work closely with industry and employers to improve higher education.” He pointed to the Innovation Academy jointly run by Trinity College, UCD and Queen’s for PhD students as an example of a crucial “innovation pathway” that would “encourage commercial thinking on campus, taking away the barriers for industries seeking to engage with research.”

He said that campus innovation is key to growing the Irish economy and ensuring Irish higher education’s “return to Irish society”. Cuts to state funding have resulted in Irish universities increasingly looking to private sources of revenue, he said, pointing out that half of Trinity College’s annual spend comes from non-exchequer sources.

Prendergast also addressed the funding crisis faced by Irish universities. Student-staff ratio is now roughly one academic to 19 students, while the norm in OECD countries is one to 15, he said. He said that Trinity College’s annual budget is 45% lower than the average university in the top 200 of global rankings.

“If universities were ranked on budget, Ireland wouldn’t even have one in top 300,” he told the symposium. “The fact that we have four in the top 300 is an achievement. Irish universities are performing far beyond their budget. The sector can’t be accused of splurge or wastage.” With “new and far better universities” emerging in Asia-Pacific, he said Irish universities will need to “do better than just slightly improving scores.”

Prendergast is the current chair of the IUA, a representative body for Irish universities. Other speakers due to address its symposium today include minister for education and skills, Jan O’Sullivan; president of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), Laura Harmon; and Danny McCoy, CEO of the Irish Business and Employers’ Confederation (IBEC).

Live streaming of the event is available here.

Catherine Healy

Editor of Trinity News. Interested in politics, history and all forms of media.