I am delighted to welcome you all to Dublin Castle for the first Education event of this Irish Presidency.
In particular, I extend a warm welcome to Commissioner Vassiliou and her colleagues.
We very much look forward to working closely with them over the next six months to achieve our shared aims for the European education and training sector.
I am also really pleased to welcome the speakers and delegates who have travelled from as far a field as the United States and from all over Europe to enjoy our Irish hospitality and participate in this conference on rankings and increasing the visibility of quality across our higher education systems.
The theme of the Irish Presidency as you know is Stability, Jobs and Growth.
The challenges facing Europe are well documented.
But within that context, I cannot overstate the case for the need for the modernisation of higher education so clearly defined in the Commission’s communication of last year.
As Europeans, we must act constructively together to enhance the quality and attractiveness of our higher education across the continent.
We have already witnessed significant milestones in the integration of higher education across Europe as a result of the Bologna Process.
But Europe now faces competitiveness challenges on a new scale in the emerging global economic order of the 21st Century.
We need to act decisively to ensure that the EU economy can emerge from the current economic crisis in a position of strength, innovation and creativity.
The capacity and potential of Europe’s higher education systems to support innovation and growth and to provide highly skilled human talent is at the forefront of that challenge.
We know that social stability, the creation of jobs and the economic growth that we require to get out of our current predicament, is all underpinned by the quality of knowledge produced and disseminated in our education system.
Our ability to produce graduates with the right mix of skills for the needs of 21st Century will underpin equal opportunity for a prosperous future for all of our citizens.
We are all aware of the emergence of vibrant, rapidly growing higher education systems in growing economies, and the economic importance of higher education in the US.
The agenda for modernising our systems of higher education is fundamental to the continuing prosperity of European member states and citizens.
European actions can and must add value.
It is estimated that there are 15,000 Universities and Higher Education Institutions in the world.
4000 of them, or just over one quarter, are located within the European Union.
They contain some 19 million students and some 1.5 million academics. That amounts to a very powerful potential.
Our universities are among the oldest in the world and, in some cases, the world’s best. As policy makers we need to be ambitious in stating and in realising the full potential of European higher education as an engine of future competitive advantage.
- That means thinking and acting collectively in pursuing reforms;
- In identifying opportunities for collaboration within Europe
- In advancing the profile and performance of our institutions on a wider global stage.
These are not new challenges.
However, increasing globalisation, current economic turbulence and rapidly advancing technological developments demand action now.
To deliver on these, we will need to support a system of diverse institutions that can cater for increasingly diverse demands and pursue excellence on a range of fronts, and we need to do all this against the background of communications and information technology which is transforming third level education.
However, I have a real concern that I know is shared by many of you in this room. The pursuit of excellence is at risk of being reduced to a narrow pursuit of high profile league table rankings. Some of these are based on limited and sometimes flawed or questionable indicators.
I mean no disrespect to those involved in compiling these and other similar rankings.
They are working from limited data sources and have sought hard to develop and refine their measurements.
But we do need to recognise the dangers of encouraging a culture of ‘playing the rankings’ in higher education to the detriment of more rounded and important quality development objectives.
However, the media and the public have an enormous appetite for these ranking systems, despite their flaws.
And of course that points to a very real public need to see into the heart of the higher education institutions that play such a pivotal role in our communities and economies.
The Great English Philosopher of the 16th Century, Sir Francis Bacon, said that “Knowledge is power”.
This remains true to this day - access to information empowers all our citizens. With today’s advanced technology we have a duty to facilitate this.
Robust and relevant information on the true quality of institutions, systems and programmes at both national and at the global level is a high priority.
That is why I have been a strong vocal supporter of U-Multirank.
It is a ranking system properly developed can capture and reward many attributes that are not currently evaluated in current international league tables.
It will help to feed that appetite for more granular and complex information that will be of real value to students, employers and other constituencies.
It can capture multiple forms of excellence that underline the parity of importance of diverse forms of higher education institutions.
Rankings are an increasingly important determinant of attracting students from different member states as well as international students from across the globe.
A robust, rounded EU ranking model can significantly enhance the reputation and attractiveness of European higher education institutions to the wider world.
It will do this by providing readily accessible information on our institutions and programmes and by acknowledging and promoting institutional excellence in its many forms.
The success of U-Multirank will depend on widespread participation of higher education institutions.
I strongly urge such institutions to seize this opportunity to participate in building a ranking system which will shine a light on the many positive aspects of higher education activity across Europe for the benefit of students, institutional leaders, policy makers and other stakeholders.
It is of crucial importance that the full range of higher education institutions are represented in this new ranking system – from the research intensive older universities of Europe through to the newer universities of applied sciences and institutes of technology with their strong enterprise focussed mission.
During the Irish Presidency and throughout the 18 months of the combined Irish, Lithuania and Greek Presidencies, the presidential TRIO, this will be a theme of our shared endeavour.
I will be asking our Universities and Third Level Institutions to participate fully in this ranking system.
Next month at the Education Minister’s meeting in Brussels, I will be asking each Minister and Member State to encourage their institutions who have not become involved, to do as soon as possible.
If we can successfully illuminate a map of the diversity which exists in our European higher education systems then we can ensure that all aspects are equally valued and evaluated – comparing like with like – so that we can work towards the quality and excellence of outcomes to which we all aspire.
Henry Ford, the Irish-American automobile innovator, once said “Quality means doing it right when no-one is looking”. I know that for generations our higher education institutions in Europe have been doing just that with the quiet pursuit of excellence as its own reward.
But now the whole world is watching higher education and we must embrace far greater transparency so that we can exponentially improve quality across its many dimensions.
I am determined that quality and equity in education and training will be advanced through the Irish Presidency.
This will entail a particular focus on promoting access and increasing relevance to emerging skills needs through the development of quality assurance and greater regional engagement.
This conference is the first step of this Presidency in advancing that wider modernisation agenda.
The Higher Education Authority have put together a varied and interesting programme ahead in the next two days and I am really delighted to see such a wide range of perspectives feeding into this important topic.
I hope that you will all join me later tonight for dinner in the Royal Hospital Kilmainham, another beautiful historical building in Dublin, where I look forward to picking up the strands of discussion begun today in a more informal setting.