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and quite a significant sense of anger,” said Mike Jennings,
general secretary of the Irish Federation of University
Teachers. “There’s a very strong sense that the public has
decided to tar the entire sector with the same brush, and
we’re all regarded as overpaid and pampered.”
And yet, despite this, Ireland has made some unusual
strategic decisions that have kept the situation
at its universities from becoming even more
grave. The budget cuts for higher education,
though significant, are not as deep as those
that have been suffered elsewhere in the
country’s public services, or at many public
universities in the United States. A threatened
“graduate tax” that would have forced
students to repay most of the cost of their
educations, like their counterparts in England,
has been tabled. Even a proposed increase in
the student registration fee has ended up far
smaller than feared. Government spending
on university research is up, thanks to a
stubborn conviction that new discoveries will help restore
prosperity, and campuses have sprouted gleaming, freshly
completed buildings that were begun at the peak of the Irish
boom years—about $490 million worth of new construction
at UCD alone.
“We’re just holding our breath because we know how
much worse it could be,” one top UCD administrator said. In
higher education, “Surprisingly, we’ve actually got kind of a
good situation in Ireland,” compared to other countries, said
Hayden, who was
previously president
of the UCD student
union. “It could be so
much worse,” agreed
Megan O’Riordan,
head of the student
union at Dublin
City University
across town, whose
mother was laid off
as an accountant
when the roofing
company she worked
for went under. “It
could be better, but
it could have been
much worse. People
are negative about
how we got here, but
they’re positive about
how we’re going to
move forward.”
And the plan
for moving forward
relies in great part
on the universities.
That’s a major reason
Science Foundation
Ireland, or SFI—this
country’s version of the U.S. National Science Foundation—
was one of the few public agencies to see its budget rise, not
fall, this year, by $15 million, to $225 million. In all, Ireland
spends $1.1 billion a year on research, two-thirds of it
conducted at its universities and institutes of technology.
But there’s a catch. The nation wants results. “People
know we’re in a deep hole. We know we have to keep
investing in the kind of development that will help with our
recovery,” said Sean Dorgan, chairman of the Centre for
Research on Adaptive Nanostructures and Nanodevices,
or CRANN, at Trinity College Dublin, which includes a
brand-new advanced microscopy laboratory a few blocks
from the famous Gothic-style Trinity quadrangle in a former
warehouse next to a onetime flour mill. Researchers who
work on its focused-ion-beam and electron microscopes in
sealed clean rooms include representatives of 74 countries,
from corporations such as Intel. “They’re very keen for us to
have metrics and deliverables regarding commercialization,”
said Joseph Carroll, the American-born associate director of
the Biomedical Diagnostics Institute at DCU, which develops
medical diagnostic products (a huge growth industry in
Ireland, up 12 percent in revenues last year in spite of the
economic downturn), in collaboration with corporate
partners including Analog Devices, and which just got $27
million from the government.
“That’s one of the main mandates now,” Carroll said.
“Three years ago things were very different. It was just about
the science. Now SFI wants us to be self-sustaining. That
will be the code word for the next few years—sustainable.”
“Our work is increasingly necessary to justify on the policy
level,” says Alan Smeaton, a senior researcher at CLARITY,
an interdisciplinary research center. “We need to make the
public aware.”
Some 266,000 jobs
have been lost in
Ireland, a nation of
4.5 million, helping
drive the biggest
emigration since
the 1980s.
“We were really set up to be at that industry-academic
intersection,” says Brian MacCraith, president of Dublin City
University. “It’s amazing how financial encouragement can
change behavior.”