Autumn Conferrings 2009
Devere Hall, Áras na Mac Léinn, UCC, 08 MFómh 2009
Prof. Áine Hyland, former Vice President, UCC
Autumn Conferring Ceremonies 2009
3.30pm Monday 7 and Tuesday 8 September 2009
Address by Prof. Áine Hyland
former Professor of Education and Vice President, UCC
I add my congratulations to those of the Vice-Chancellor. Today is a day of celebration for all of you, your families and friends, and for your teachers and mentors in UCC. I wish you all the very best in the years ahead. Whether you move into the world of work or continue your studies to a higher level, I hope you will have a fulfilling and happy future.
I sat my Leaving Certificate in 1959 and entered the Civil Service as an Executive Officer in the Department of Education that autumn. I did not become a university student until later – when the marriage ban required me to leave the Civil Service and I completed my undergraduate and postgraduate studies when my children were young and the marriage ban precluded me from taking up full-time work. I have spent the last 50 years involved in education in various capacities – as civil servant, research assistant, parent activist, teacher, lecturer, professor of education, and until three years ago Vice-President of UCC. I continue to have an avid interest and an involvement in education nationally and internationally, and I would like to talk briefly today about what has been achieved in Irish education in the past half a century and to touch on the challenges that lie ahead.
Half a century ago, only 50% of our 12 and 13 year olds transferred from primary to second-level education. About 40% completed junior cycle second level education and sat the Group or the Intermediate Cert; less than 20% completed senior cycle and were awarded the Leaving Certificate: less than 5% went on to university. Total enrolment in higher education (universities, colleges of education and other HE colleges) was less than 15,000 students; one quarter of whom had home addresses "outside the State" and less than 20% of whom were females. The annual number of graduates in the whole country was 2,000. Of these, less than 30% graduated with an honours degree. About 200 per annum graduated each year with a Masters or higher degree from all Irish universities. Academic results required for entry to higher education were low – more than half of those who entered professional disciplines such as medicine, law and engineering in the early 1960s, would not be accepted under to-day’s points system. Entry to higher education in Ireland before 1970 was based largely on ability to pay university fees and to forego wages. And Ireland was a poor country in the 1950s – unemployment was very high; emigration was rife and poverty was widespread.
In spite of the recent economic downturn and the rising unemployment and poverty levels, Ireland is a much better country today. Enrolment in higher education in Ireland has increased more than twelvefold in the past 50 years. Almost 60% of the population now enter higher education. Achievement levels have improved systematically over time with over 75% of students now graduating with an honours degree. 60% of our undergraduates are female. Participation rates in higher education have particularly improved among groups who were traditionally under-represented e.g. mature students, students with disabilities and students from lower socio-economic backgrounds. While children of professionals and of employers and managers continue to be the most highly represented in our universities, the gap between these young people and the children of skilled, semi-skilled and unskilled workers has narrowed considerably in the past five to ten years. Initiatives taken under the Access programmes in universities and Institutes of Technology have contributed to this growth in participation.
However, we cannot be complacent. We must continue to ensure that education is valued by the people of Ireland and that our young people continue to have an opportunity to benefit from world-class university education in this country. The Irish government has stated that it is committed to placing the higher education system in the top rank of the OECD in terms of both quality and levels of participation, and has emphasized that Ireland must be a world leader not only in undergraduate or third level education, but also in postgraduate or fourth level education.
But in spite of the government’s avowed support for higher education, per capita government expenditure in the sector has fallen significantly in real terms in recent years, leaving Irish higher education in a vulnerable situation vis-à-vis its international competitors. The recent report of the National Competitiveness Council published last month, pointed out that at all levels of education, Ireland invests less money per student than other countries in the EU-15 and in the OECD. For example, whereas the average spending on higher education in the U.S. is $24,000 per student, in Ireland the equivalent figure is much less than half that – only $10,500 per student. Similarly Ireland spends less per student in higher education than other OECD countries – where the average spend is over $16,000. In spite of that glaring discrepancy, the recent report of An Bord Snip has targeted the university sector for further cuts – suggesting a cut of 10% in staff numbers and budget. Such a cut would be a disaster for higher education and for Ireland’s competitiveness internationally.
Irish universities are willing and poised to face the challenges of higher education in the 21st century. In spite of cut-backs and financial constraints, we are well on the way to achieving the target of doubling the number of post-graduate students by 2013. Excellent work is being done in the area of Graduate Education by UCC – led by Professor John O’Halloran who chairs the Graduate Studies Committee of Academic Council and by Professor Alan Kelly, Dean of Graduate Studies. I can say this with confidence as co-ordinator of the U.S. based Carnegie Foundation’s CASTL Graduate Education Network of which UCC is a member. Other universities in this network include Rutgers in New Jersey, Michigan State University, the University of Wisconsin at Madison and the Central European University in Budapest – and UCC’s achievements in the past three years have been very impressive indeed.
UCC has also been in the forefront in ensuring that teaching and learning at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels is research-informed and researched. There is no dichotomy between research and teaching, and some of the best university teachers both in UCC and in universities around the world are also renowned researchers. It is not uncommon in the U.S. to find that the winner of the U.S. Professor/Teacher of the Year is also an outstanding researcher – even a Nobel prize-winner. UCC’s commitment to the integration of Research and Teaching and Learning is manifest in that it is the lead institution in the National Academy for the Integration of Research and Teaching and Learning – an initiative that has done impressive work since it was set up two years ago.
The lack of financial support by government for part-time students (e.g. part-time students are not eligible for fee exemption or for grants) has militated against a higher level of participation in higher education by mature students and other under-represented groups in Ireland. Ireland has one of the lowest levels of part-time participation in the world in higher education at less than 12% – the majority of whom are in Institutes of Technology. Only 3% of undergraduate students in the university sector are part-time students. Our older population are among the least well educated in the OECD countries and if our higher education system were more flexible, many of them would like to upgrade their educational qualifications, especially in these recessionary times. There may be some light on the horizon in this regard. I was involved recently in a report on Open and Distance Learning, chaired by Malcolm Skilbeck, which recommended that the Irish government remove the funding anomalies between full-time and part-time students. I understand that this recommendation was accepted by the HEA – and it will now be a matter for the Strategy Group on Higher Education to include this recommendation in its forthcoming report to government.
However, not all of the initiatives for change have to come from government. Universities themselves must be pro-active in responding to the changing needs and demands of society. For example, Irish universities need to develop policies and practices in relation to the recognition and accreditation of Prior Learning, both formal and informal, which will enable mature people to get due recognition of their prior learning – however achieved. Universities also need to introduce greater flexibility in provision - to enable students to access learning both on-campus and off-campus. I know that some individual professors and lecturers have been very creative in this regard in spite of institutional obstacles – but it is time for flexible learning to be embedded in university policy.
There is also a growing need and demand for interdisciplinary courses. Most Irish universities have to date been bound by faculty boundaries at undergraduate level - interdisciplinary studies are relatively rare, in particular interdisciplinary courses which cross faculty boundaries. In the current climate where knowledge is increasingly being extended and some of the most exciting research is being carried out at the intersection of disciplinary boundaries, higher education institutions need to be more flexible in this regard. Even though HE courses in Ireland have been modularised, in line with the Bologna declaration, the potential of modularisation has not been fully exploited to enable Irish students to cross disciplinary boundaries.
Finally a brief word about gender balance in Irish universities. I mentioned earlier that there has been a total turn-around in the proportion of female students in Irish universities in the past fifty years – from 20% in the 1950s to 60% today - so much so that we are now concerned about the under-representation of young men, particularly in some subject areas. The number of female lecturers has also increased significantly, especially at relatively junior levels. However, only about 15% of university professors are women and this % has been very slow to change. The male-female imbalance is even greater at management level, where in some Irish universities there is no woman on the top management group. Can we dare to hold out hope that within the next few years, when a number of Irish universities will be filling the post of President, a woman might be appointed President in even one University? To date, there has never been a woman president of an Irish university. This is one development I would thoroughly welcome in my lifetime.
Again I would like to congratulate all of you and to wish you all the best in the future.