Privatising Universities


Station:                NEWSTALK 106

Programme:        DAVID McWILLIAMS

Date:                    21 May 04

Presenter:  Let us stick with the idea of perceived elitism in education because it’s once again come under the radar stream with the publications in the papers yesterday of this idea of League Tables. The issue is going to be discussed in Liberty Hall tomorrow where SIPTU will be discussing the threat of privatised and privatising universities as well as secondary schools.  But SIPTU is very, very much against the threat of privatising universities.  For many, privatisation would limit student access, for others however it would be a chance to reintroduce higher standards in universities.  My guest this morning is Ed Walsh, Dr Ed Walsh, the former head of the university of Limerick, who has one or two interesting ideas on third level reform.  Ed, good morning to you.

Ed Walsh:  Good morning.

Presenter:  Ed Walsh, privatised universities – a good or bad thing?

Ed Walsh:  It depends on how you approach the issue.  Looking at it from a social standpoint and the question of fees, the issue arises whether a hundred percent of the population should subsidise a small elite who go on to higher education.  Many countries feel that that is not a good idea.  They charge fees to those who go on to higher education, and from a social standpoint it would seem that that is a fairly sound idea.  If you pursue the issue further then and students are paying fees to go onto higher education, why exclude certain people who wish to establish new universities and operate them as private universities. 

Presenter:  Now in the United States, and in Australia, this is more or less the norm. 

Ed Walsh:  Well, in the United States, it’s interesting.  Prior to the war the United States didn’t have one world-class research university.  They were effectively all in Europe.  Now the top twenty universities in the United States which are probably amongst the top twenty in the world, are all private.  This year Berkley, failed to make the top-twenty league.  And Berkley has eight Nobel Prize winners on its faculty.  Few European university have any Nobel Prize winners on their faculty. 

Presenter:  Do you think Ed a private university here in Ireland, would be successful, and would attract that calibre of individual if they could be paid for?

Ed Walsh:  At present it would be very difficult for a private university to succeed because there’s a position of unfair competition.  The state gives the state universities a large block grant, so it would be very difficult if you got the idea of establishing a private university here, to do so, because you’d be competing against highly subsidised state institutions.  Now, on the other hand, if you create the situation where students paid fees to the universities that were available whether they were private, or public, then you could see the emergence of strong healthy, private universities.  You could see the possibility that some public universities would wish to move towards being private.  Why is that a good idea?  It’s a good idea because we have discovered that institutions of any kind for which the clients pay nothing, are not generally excellent institutions.  If they are under the control of the state, those who manage them are faced with all of the usual state bureaucracies, and the institutions, if they’re not forced to consider the bottom line, are often not as efficient as they might be.  So, there are many models we can look to, not necessarily in the United States.  Lets look to Australia.  In Australia the students go to state, public institutions and the go to private institutions.  They all pay fees, but the state has a system which permits the student to borrow when they go to a university, public or private, and to repay the state during the course of their lives if they’re income is above a certain level. 

Presenter:  Very, interesting ideas.  That’s Doctor Ed Walsh, the former Head of the University of Limerick, because clearly the education system is being focused on how best to finance it, how best to get excellence in the education system.  Interesting views there from Ed Walsh, the former Head of the University of Limerick, a university that was very successful in attracting in private money, over the course of his tenure there.

Supplied by Media Monitors (Irl) Ltd.

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