Free education not practicable: DCU President

President of DCU, Professor Brian MacCraith believes the recent decision by DCU Students to campaign for a free education system is “not a practicable one”.

In an interview with The College View, Prof MacCraith said the issue of funding the third level sector is a complex one.

“I think the reality for me as president and for many people in my position is that you have a situation where student numbers are increasing and continuing to increase and you have government funding decreasing and will probably continue to decrease in the next number of years. That creates a situation where the investment per student is dropping all the time and to me that is stretching and straining the system to a point where something has to give.”

Prof MacCraith said he would prefer a system where funding would not be a barrier for anyone eligible for third level education and said he’d be happy for students who could afford it to pay more.

Commenting on the results of the recent funding referendum in DCU, MacCraith said: “I think one could come up with a fairer system where there’s distributed contributions right across. I think the notion at the moment of free education is not a practicable one, I think that’s fairly obvious and I think there is very few places in the world where that is the case. Given the austerity that exists in Ireland at the moment, I don’t think that’s a sustainable position.”

MacCraith said there is a “recognition that the funding model as it currently stands, is just not sustainable. We have to look at ways of actually making it sustainable and there’s many aspects to that”.

Speaking on the need to reform the third level education sector in Ireland, Prof MacCraith told The College View: “Well, I mean there’s a major reform programme taking place and issues like clusters and consolidation and looking at the provision of degree programmes.

“The government feels there may be lots of unnecessary duplication of degree programmes so we’ll have to look at that issue. I think there’ll be lots of collaboration across institutions. That’s useful that you can create new degree programmes together and you can give students a broader choice of modules and so on, I think that’s likely to happen.

“I see my responsibility as one of ensuring students get a quality education here and the existing quality of a DCU degree, which is recognised internationally, that I maintain and enhance that here in the university. That’s the bottom line and some of that costs money.”

With reform taking place in the third level education sector, MacCraith believes this was a very significant year in DCU with the announcement of new partnerships and new degree programmes. “Probably most significant of all is the announcement of the intention of St. Pats Drumcondra, the Mater Dei Institute and Church of Ireland College Education to come inside DCU to form this significant new entity, a new institute of education and an expanded faculty of humanities and social sciences. That is a very big development of what I would say is historical significance. It will create a fifth faculty in DCU, a faculty of education.”

The launch of this strategic plan is pinpointed as Prof MacCraith’s highlight of the year in DCU. “That to me sets out my vision and the vision of the university for the next number of years and it’s a very ambitious one, it’s all about enhancing the university, enhancing the student experience, enhancing the research reputation of the university. That clearly maps out what we’re going to do, so that’s a big achievement.”

Prof MacCraith believes this has been a very successful year for DCU. “Student successes are obviously hugely important to me and we’ve had student successes in many competitions, student successes academically, staff successes, sporting successes. I just think it’s been a really good year for DCU, lots of announcements, lots of initiatives, two Nobel laureates spoke on campus and the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton.

“This year was a very positive year for DCU I think.”

Prof MacCraith told The College View he hopes to achieve “a vibrant campus and students really have a broad experience and they come out of here enriched so a whole combination of things”.

This year, DCU made it into the QS world rankings top 50 universities in the world under 50 years old and came 324th in the overall QS world rankings. However DCU didn’t make it into the Times Higher Education (THE) top 400 universities in the world.

“Well you see, there’s different ranking systems. There’s two we take particular interest in, one of these is the QS one and we’re at 324 and there’s also one we’re in the top 50 under 50 and that was the biggest achievement. And then there’s the Times Higher Education one and we’re just outside the 400.

“The biggest thing they measure is reputation. Last year, and the year before, all Irish universities dropped way down in the scoring. There’s no way all seven universities in Ireland got bad overnight, it’s simply the brand of Ireland.

“That’s why the top 50 under 50 is very important because it has a much less of a favourable reputation because they’re all young universities and that’s a more level playing field for us. So we’re the only Irish university in the top 50 under 50 and we’re the only Irish university that’s in the QS top 50 under 50 and the THE top 100 under 50. So that’s good news for us. The strongest brand we have is the top 50 under 50 and it’s being noted around the world.”

Prof MacCraith told The College View: “Reputation is cumulative; the longer you’re going around and the more things you’re doing successfully around the world. The event with Hillary Clinton, that’s going to be very big news all around the world and it’s one of the advantages of having her here.

“Connections with India, China, the States, successes in what we do, successful research outcomes, successful graduates and alumni – all of these things add to reputation. As we grow old as a university and our graduates start to rise to the top of organisations all of that adds to it. It’s continuous work that you have to keep doing to continue telling the DCU story, but it’s an easy story to tell.”

As President of DCU, Prof MacCraith tries to engage with students and staff as often as he can. “I seek opportunities to engage with the students. Last [academic] year I made it my business to go to as many student events as possible, particularly in the later half of the year when there was the MPS events, the music events, the student awards nights. I also spoke at the Class Rep Council as well and I have suggested that I would love to do that again this year.

“I want my role as president to be one where there is effective and active dialogue with the students. I look for opportunities to have that engagement, I think it’s very important. I need to know what students are thinking, I can do my job a lot better if I understand what is important to students.”

Looking forward to next year in DCU, Prof MacCraith told The College View: “It is an exciting time for DCU, there’s a lot of good things. In January, we’ll be opening our new innovation campus, we’ll be announcing a student accelerator programme for student entrepreneurs and there’s other stuff coming along as well.

“I wish all the students a very happy Christmas and hopefully they don’t have to study too hard and get a good break. I’m looking forward to talking to them all again in the new year and having another exciting year in DCU.”

Aoife Mullen

Image Credit: Sean Conroy

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