Chapter 3. Enhancing the organisational capacity of Ireland’s higher education institutions

This chapter expands on the findings presented in Chapter 2 related to enhancing organisational capacity. It examines organisational capacity from a system-level perspective and discusses the current restructuring of the higher education system, the steering mechanisms and funding of research in higher education institutions. The chapter discusses the further development of the Regional Clusters and the next generation of regional collaborative fora (e.g. Regional Skills Fora). The chapter also reviews current practices undertaken by higher education institutions to enhance and sustain their organisational capacity primarily with regard to research and knowledge exchange.



Entrepreneurship and innovation in higher education are no longer only associated with business start-ups and technology transfer. They are also referred to as procedural frameworks for how organisations and individuals behave, for example, in creating and nurturing links between teaching and research, organising societal engagement and knowledge exchange, and building and managing resources for effective partnerships. In short, being an entrepreneurial and innovative higher education institution (HEI) means to discover and act upon opportunities, which initially may appear to be challenges. In doing so, HEIs need to continuously augment their organisational capacity. A common starting point is the presence of an all-encompassing leadership, strategic planning and professional management framework. Adequate funding, a high level of institutional autonomy, accountability mechanisms that allow for flexibility and agility, as well as close links with strategic partners at local, national and international levels are indispensable building blocks.

Ireland has been hit hard by the economic crisis starting in 2008. It is now well on its way to recovery after an austerity programme which has very severely restricted investment in fundamental areas and resulted in unprecedented cuts in the public sector. The country has a favourable demographic situation. With a population of 4.6 million people and an average age of 34 years, Ireland has one of the youngest populations in Europe. It also has one of the highest rates of tertiary education attainment in the age group 30-34 years old (52.3% in 2015). The initiative of the Irish government to attract the Irish diaspora back to Ireland to live and work is important in augmenting the country’s labour market.

Higher education in Ireland is one of the sectors which has experienced significantly large cuts. In the period 2008-14 public funding decreased by about 25%. Over the same period, the number of core staff in HEIs has been reduced by about 13% while student numbers have risen by 15%. Expenditure per student has declined by 24% from 2008 to 2016. Since 2014, there have been financial incentives and penalties implemented as part of the Strategic Dialogue process (see below), which are expected to reach up to 10% of total available funding.

Challenges facing policy makers and the higher education system in the coming years include: i) meeting the needs of a diverse student population, including school leavers and mature learners,1 ii) building interdisciplinary research areas and links with teaching and learning in higher education, iii) widening participation while reflecting the changing composition and diversity of the population at all levels of education, iv) making the case for increased funding for higher education and research which competes with other high priority areas for public funding including health, social housing and primary and second-level education.

Generally speaking, the public budget for higher education may be distributed according to various models. In most European countries a formula is used to calculate the amount to be allocated to publicly funded HEIs. Through a set of indicators and their respective weights, the higher education system is steered to meet national priorities. The indicators, approximately 26 on average, include the number of students (input related indicator), the number of graduates (output), the graduate employment rate, community outreach etc. A model common in many countries is multi-annual contract funding, covering a period of two to three years, to enable better planning. This may also include measures to be taken in the event of unmet targets or if the state does not have enough means to provide the agreed amount of funding.2

In Ireland, public funding for higher education and research is distributed to HEIs through two mechanisms: i) a block grant which provides funding for core teaching and research activities and ii) competitive research awards. The block grant is a combined grant for core teaching and research activities and the Higher Education Authority (HEA) is responsible for distributing the funding amongst HEIs. Funds are allocated, primarily, using an input based formula which takes into account student numbers, weighted according to the area and level of the programme. Widening participation is incentivised through weighting more favourably students coming from non-traditional backgrounds. Research activity is incentivised by applying a higher weighting to research students. Furthermore, 5% of the core allocation to universities is top-sliced and allocated on the basis of research criteria – research degrees awarded and contract research income per academic staff. A stability mechanism of limiting budget variations to 2% in comparison with the previous year is in place. A review of the current funding model, known as the Recurrent Grant Allocation Model or RGAM, is currently underway.

Research funding in Irish higher education has decreased in recent years due to the economic crisis. This has arisen from both a reduction in targeted competitive research grants and also a reduction in core funding to higher education. There is no separate core funding stream for research, as is the case in some OECD countries, but the HEA block grant is clearly defined as a combined grant for supporting both teaching and research in HEIs. While the funding is allocated to HEIs using the formula described above, HEIs have full discretion in how this funding is used within their institution across the full range of disciplines and activities. In terms of research, this funding provides core support for research capacity including academic research salaries, support staff, overhead expenses, library services etc. This is complemented by competitive research funding programmes which are managed by a number of research funding agencies. These support specific projects and range from individual scholarships and fellowships to large research centres.

According to Eurostat data, state investment in research and development (R&D) in higher education in 2014 was estimated at 0.33% of gross domestic product (GDP), well below the provisional European Union average of 0.47%, and the provisional estimated 1.01% of GDP invested in Denmark, a suitable reference country for Ireland in terms of size. In the National Reform Programme, and Europe 2020 strategy a new target of gross domestic expenditure on R&D (GERD) of 2% of GDP is to be achieved by 2020 (1.52% in 2014). It is desirable that investment in R&D be increased to 3% of GDP as in other European countries.

R&D activities are essential for the long term growth of an economy. Disruptive innovations related to information and communications technology (ICT), such as Big Data, quantum computing and the Internet of Things are changing the ways in which we work and live. In the period 2010-12 inventions in these domains accounted for over two-thirds of patents filed in Europe and the United States. In this, R&D activities in higher education play an important role. Also relevant in this regard is raising the absorptive capacity for knowledge transfer through lifelong learning. According to latest available cross-country data, Ireland has the highest share of employment in the ICT sector and its sub-sectors at 5.14 % in 2013, compared to the OECD average of 2.85% (OECD, 2015).3 ICT skills, particularly in small and medium-sized firms (SMEs), are crucial for firm survival and growth in the digital economy. An important policy objective is to seek to increase the level of ICT skills in the working population at all levels of education and training. Ireland has several excellent examples in this regard, such as the Springboard programme, addressed at reskilling and upskilling of the work force, and the ICT Skills Action Plan (see Chapter 1).

The European Commission has recently published the results of a foresight exercise on intelligent policy choices for Europe 2050 where it is proposed that a Europe of success will be characterised by “clusters of well-funded, internationally renowned universities thriving in strong partnerships with regional institutions” (EC, 2015). A case shall be made within the European Union for “Open Science” and all European regions will need to engage with this new reality. Areas for action include supporting infrastructure development, ensuring data access and literacy, reforming intellectual property rules, opening markets and programmes and enabling citizen participation. To achieve these aims expertise is needed (engineers, data management specialists, etc.) but also capital investment for computer networks, data repositories, archives and so on. Training people to work with data, and open access to data are fundamental building blocks. In this regard, regional collaborative initiatives in Ireland involving HEIs, as discussed in this chapter, are timely and promising.

Governance and steering of higher education, research and innovation in Ireland is shared between the Department of Education and Skills (DES) and the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation (DJEI). While DES has sole responsibility for governance and oversight of the higher education sector, the responsibility for R&D policy and funding is split between the two departments, with DJEI being the stronger partner in that respect. This is the result of a reorganisation of departmental responsibilities in 2010/11 when training came to DES and more elements of research went to DJEI. To avoid competing policies and overlapping funding instruments a high level of communication and shared decision making processes are of central importance. The cross-government governance and implementation structures, which are part of the Innovation 2020 strategy, the country’s research and innovation strategy, are an important framework for achieving this.

Analysis and findings

Organisational capacity from a system-level perspective

Steering mechanisms in the Irish higher education system

To achieve better co-ordination of the higher education offer at regional and national levels, avoiding duplication and responding adequately to the demand, and at the same time guaranteeing institutional autonomy balanced with public accountability three steering mechanisms were introduced in the Irish higher education system. These are the system performance framework, the strategic dialogue leading to the institutional compacts, and the performance funding (See also Chapter 1). Also, the current review of the Recurrent Grant Allocation Model (RGAM) is expected to strengthen the steering of the system through general funding allocation.

The system performance framework is based on a strategic dialogue that was established between the HEA and each HEI and resulted in mission-based performance agreements, the so-called institutional compacts. The compact provides a strategic framework for the relationship between each HEI and the government: each compact aligns the mission and goals of the individual HEI with the national priorities for higher education. The compact also details funding commitments and objective indicators of success.

The compacts constitute a performance incentive framework, which enables the necessary steering of the higher education system while maintaining the autonomy of the HEIs and focusing on the need for accountability. As such, the approach is a model from which other higher education systems can learn. The most important learning points are:

  • Dealing with duplication of academic offers and spurious competition amongst HEIs in a constructive way.

  • Achieving a smooth transition pathway for students between institutions and programmes.

  • Achieving a smooth transition between further education and higher education.

  • Providing an offer at regional level that goes from short cycle certificates (further education) to PhD.

  • Agreeing on quantitative success indicators and how achievement is rewarded.

  • Respecting institutional autonomy and the need for accountability.

In 2014 an element of performance funding was introduced whereby financial incentives and penalties are being implemented as part of the compact review process, reaching up to 10% of total available funding. As it currently stands, this is a zero-sum-exercise since the money used for incentives comes from top-slicing the total amount which, at best, remains the same. The net result is an allocation model, which is based on prior performance instead of actual outputs.

Reconfiguration through mergers and regional initiatives

Higher education in Ireland is offered by public and private HEIs of three types: universities, institutes of technology (IOTs), and specialised colleges. In an attempt to overcome fragmentation, avoid duplication of programmes, give a better response to the needs of regional development and ensure sustainability, a major reconfiguration and rationalisation of the system has been recently initiated. The reform process is a major step towards transforming a collection of loosely bound HEIs into a system which is capable of dealing with the challenges of the 21st century.

Mergers of HEIs are part of this process. Typically, mergers are difficult and complex; and success is highly dependent on the quality of planning and implementation phases. Success factors identified from extant mergers include: creation of an inspiring vision for the new institution, identification of the expected gains, managing the staff allegiances, values and cultural differences and involving students. Moreover, the new HEI should recognise and respect the heritage and achievements of the formerly independent HEIs in a way that does not affect the creation and performance of the new HEI.

One strand of this development is the merger of small colleges of education into universities. The aim is to create larger and more dynamic institutions that are capable of accommodating diversity of views and backgrounds. The merger of St Patrick College Drumcondra, Mater Dei Institute of Education and the Church of Ireland College of Education with Dublin City University (DCU) is an example of this which illustrates some of the key challenges of mergers. There are significant cultural differences between the institutions, the smaller colleges are much older than DCU and have strong religious affiliations. The challenges in managing staff allegiances, values and cultural differences have been addressed through various work streams, a series of staff engagement workshops and other fora. This merger has been reported as a case study in a European project led by the European University Association (EUA, 2015).

Another proposed initiative is the merger of several IOTs with the possibility of providing the amalgamated HEI the status of a technological university. This process raises significant questions including the view, by international standards, that Ireland already has a high number of universities (although all of the existing universities would be classed as “traditional” universities and would have a different mission to technological universities).

A technological university will be distinguished by a mission and ethos that is aligned and consistent with the current mission and focus of institutes of technology with an emphasis on programmes at levels 6 to 8 and industry focused research. A technological university will also be expected to play a pivotal role in facilitating access and progression particularly through relationships with the further education and training sector. The proposed functions of a technological university include a strong focus on engagement with employers and regional development.

It will be important to ensure that a compelling vision for each of the proposed technological universities is created, that appropriate external stakeholder involvement is facilitated in mission development, and that appropriate resource models are developed and made available to ensure the process results in real value-added for the higher education system as a whole.

A further step in the development of the higher education system has been the Regional Clusters initiative, with the stated aim to facilitate extensive collaboration of HEIs and engagement with businesses, industry and civil society in order to build vibrant regional innovation systems. Six Regional Clusters were formed building on prior initiatives, such as the Atlantic University Alliance (AUA), created in 1999, and the Shannon Consortium formed in 2006 (see Box 3.1, below). The Regional Clusters initiative showed that a “one-size-fits-all approach” does not work. Each of the Regional Clusters had to adequately reflect the institutional, local and regional realities, taking into consideration previous experiences with the aim of enhancing synergies and co-ordination in education programmes and student pathways for the benefit of the region.

Within the regional initiatives, the fundamental objective is the creation of dynamic and innovative regions. Achieving this objective needs the co-ordinated engagement of knowledge users (and in some cases transformers) from business, industry and society. Of particular value is the presence of regional and national R&D players in regional initiatives. Their presence and commitment to regional initiatives, such as Regional Clusters and Regional Skills Fora, will be crucial for transforming regional groupings into vibrant knowledge hubs. Key to this is also the mobility of research staff between higher education and industry.

Regional clusters perform two integral and symbiotic roles – one is inward-looking and the other one is outward-facing. Good progress has been made with regard to the inward-looking role, particularly as far as collaboration of HEIs is concerned. However, more efforts are needed to build and strengthen the outward-facing role of the Regional Clusters and any future regional collaborative initiatives involving HEIs, such as the Regional Skills Fora. This situation is to be expected as HEIs tend to react in a conservative way to any process that presents and values them as elements of a larger system instead of unique independent institutions competing with each other for students and funding.

At the current stage of the Strategic Dialogue, institutional compacts have been agreed and signed. It is now important to press on with regional initiatives in order to join the dots in the education system. To this end, a renewed attention to the development of the regional initiatives is important. So far, the provision of different pathways into higher education and between HEIs has been identified as the most important objective. Collaborative research and innovation, which also have a space at the regional level, are underdeveloped. Progress in this direction requires a dialogue which includes research organisations other than HEIs. Their “voice” is needed in order to fully explore and exploit the opportunities related to regional initiatives, whose overall aim is to create dynamic and viable knowledge regions.

The commitment of the HEIs visited to the Regional Clusters and other regional initiatives was evident in many ways. On top of the strategic decisions which need to be appropriately informed, there is a need to set up teams to work on the development of possible ways of implementing decisions in a range of areas, including skills, research and local development. The organisational capacity of the institutions is crucial for achieving these common objectives as is the strengthening of the communication of strategic objectives and decisions across the HEIs and their regional partners.

At this point, it is worth taking a closer look into the governance requirements for these regional initiatives. The complexity and diversity of stakeholders makes knowledge management within them much more complex than within the closed system of HEIs. Hence, careful consideration needs to be given to management and governance systems. An example of an effective governance structure is the Shannon Consortium, which brings together the University of Limerick, the Limerick Institute of Technology, the Mary Immaculate College, local community and businesses, city and county councils (Box 3.1).

Box 3.1. Shannon Consortium

The Shannon Consortium was created in 2007 bringing together the University of Limerick (UL) and the Limerick Institute of Technology (LIT), the two key drivers of the consortium, which has developed into a vibrant HEI partnership, also involving Mary Immaculate College, local community and businesses, city and county councils.

The leadership in both the Limerick Institute of Technology and the University of Limerick has given substance, at a strategic level, to their joint attempts to help address regional development issues and shared services opportunities. Their actions manifest themselves as jointly grasped opportunities, strategic plan statements and public commitment to their region. The joint bid (together with other regional partners) to the Strategic Innovation Fund, an Irish government initiative, in 2006 to establish a Shannon Consortium, arose directly as a result of the close personal working relationship between the presidents of the two HEIs. The Chairperson of the Shannon Consortium is a retired senior civil servant and former diplomat from Limerick City.

The excellent collaboration between the HEIs has led to a growing number of innovative joint activities in education and research. Examples are a combined graduate school and PhD accreditation (which commenced in 2015), collaborative springboard courses as well as applied research activities and new, effective ways to enhance enterprise engagement (e.g. Limerick for IT). Sharing of rewards for joint supervision of theses is under discussion and there is a clear policy in place for students who wish to transfer from LIT to UL and vice versa after successfully completing the required number of programme modules. “Limerick for IT” is an IT skills partnership which commenced in 2014 and combines the strengths of the two HEIs in partnership with key industry partners, such as General Motors, Johnson & Johnson, Kerry Group, Limerick City and County Council and IDA Ireland. The initiative has facilitated attracting foreign direct investment and job creation which has also led to new forms of collaboration between higher education and industry (e.g. Johnson and Johnson Development Centre).

The impact of the Shannon Consortium is significant. For example, the multinational company Northern Trust would not have chosen to locate in Limerick without the consortium being in place, which enabled fast response times to the development of staff training programmes, the provision of office space etc. This has led to 400 new jobs being located in Limerick.

Source: Source: HEInnovate (2015).

Evaluating the performance of the research system

Understanding and addressing the societal challenges of today’s world requires contributions from all areas of knowledge. Innovation 2020, Ireland’s strategy for research and development, science and technology, recognises the importance of continuing to support excellent research across all disciplines. Ireland needs to continue its commitment to investment in research taking into account the need for prioritisation and at the same time guaranteeing that all disciplines receive adequate funding and perform at the highest level. In 2015, an independent expert panel reviewed progress under the national research prioritisation exercise. Its recommendations include “research prioritisation should be positioned in a broader, strategic research framework which recognises the need to fund excellent research in other areas, in order to underpin the wider skills agenda, to meet broader societal goals and to further enhance Ireland’s reputation for outstanding science” (DJEI, 2015).

Because there is no common research classification system funding agencies find it hard to share data on HEIs and researchers. If there was a common classification system and in as far as possible an agreed dataset to be collected (with additional indicators where required for particular agencies), then it would be much easier to build a common interface and share data.

There is a need to value the role and societal contributions of higher education. Irish HEIs need to be recognised for their important role, contributing not only to the qualifications of the work force at the highest level but also to social cohesion, economic development and growth. In other countries regular performance evaluations are conducted to allow for the provision of essential investment by the state in the maintenance and upgrading of the physical infrastructure, equipment and human capital to ensure continued performance of the research system.

Evaluating the performance of a research system is essential to its credibility but also in determining its impact and ability to attract continued investment. In Ireland there is no periodic and systematic evaluation of the performance of the research system. In the absence of a national assessment regime, some universities have undertaken internal reviews. Also, national funding agencies request information from HEIs and funded researchers periodically. For example, all SFI programmes have been reviewed by independent consultants and deemed fit for purpose. All SFI industry facing programmes have a core focus on commercialisation and innovation leading to economic impacts. Moreover, industry partnerships ensure the relevance of the research. However, all this does not replace a national evaluation exercise, which applies a common approach to all funders and evaluates research groups and not individual researchers according to performance and agreed contracts using international criteria and experts in order to ensure its continued performance, and the provision of essential investment by the state in human capital and in the maintenance of the physical infrastructure. Initiating such an approach should be considered.

A national evaluation exercise is a powerful instrument for improving the research system and for increasing its capacity to attract investment. Aside from determining performance it is also important for Ireland to determine a research unit’s capability to continue as a high performer in terms of its human resources, capital infrastructure and any future investment. The aim is to support a research system, constituted by units that guarantee a good and growing level of critical mass and quality, involving professors, associated researchers, PhDs and post docs. These units should have a programme and plan of activities for a certain period of time (e.g. 5-6 years). Capital infrastructure and any future investment (floor funding) would be provided by the state. Core funding is addressed at maintaining the operational capacity of the research unit. At the same time, the steering of the system and the national priorities can be addressed with competitive calls.

An example of such a national evaluation exercise is the Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia, the Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT) in Portugal, which leads periodic external evaluation of the R&D units carried out by international experts (Box 3.2). In small countries, such as Ireland and Portugal, these assessments need to be carried out by international experts in order to avoid conflicts of interest.

Box 3.2. The periodic external evaluation of the R&D units in Portugal

In Portugal, every six years an external evaluation exercise is performed on the scientific and technological activities undertaken so far and planned for the next six years. The evaluation is organised by the Fundação para a Ciência e Tecnologia (FCT) and includes site visits by international teams, nominated by the FCT Board, applying a set of transparent evaluation criteria. Evaluation criteria are established to assess the scientific productivity and respective impact, contributions to the national scientific and technological system, merits of the research team and the quality and feasibility of the strategic plan. The impact of the scientific, technological and cultural output is also taken into consideration. Special attention is given to fields of study for which bibliometric data is not readily available, like the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences.

The results are graded from “exceptional” to “excellent”, “very good”, “good” and “fair”. Only research units that have passed the evaluation will receive state funding, which consists of two components: core funding and strategic funding. Core funding is allocated to units rated equal to or higher than “good”, the amount provided reflects the size of the unit and its laboratory intensity. Additional strategic funding is allocated to units graded “excellent” or “exceptional”. Funding is stopped for those units which do not achieve a certain standard.

The result of this exercise is also used by the HEIs’ leadership to further enhance areas of strength and alternatively to close under-performing areas. Interdisciplinary units of considerable dimension were also created. These units address larger themes such as ageing, communication, etc. They compete for basic funding but also have funding from industry. An independent funding agency provides a programme for scholarships on a multi-annual basis with additional funding for temporary staff. The independent funding agency is also regularly evaluated.

When the FCT was introduced, criticisms were raised about, amongst other things, the high costs and the fact that only high performing research units received funding and the resources to compete internationally, which simply resulted in the good ones becoming better. A further point of critique was also the undeniable fact that research competition has displaced the collegiate, collaborative values that the academic world once held. However, even if this is partially true, the level of competition generated from such an exercise is nothing compared to the competition generated by the worldwide rankings, which greatly influence the institutional capacity to attract talent.

Source: Source: Author’s own work.

Organisational capacity from an institutional perspective

Government can enhance (or force) through competitive funding programmes the achievement of critical mass, interdisciplinarity and societal and economic relevance of education and research. At the same time, HEIs themselves can introduce measures which have these effects through allocation of funding, awards and other forms of individual or departmental incentives and rewards. All HEIs visited have excellent examples of these. They offer valuable learnings for other HEIs in Ireland and abroad and are presented in the following.

Dealing with decreasing funding for research and the search for new funding sources

The need to attain financial sustainability has led HEIs across Europe to become much more proactive in the search for new income streams. The net result is positive and Ireland is no exception, with HEIs increasing the number of funding sources. Some HEIs count more than 100 different sources of income (EUA, 2013). However, there are negative consequences of success in diversifying income. First is the need to meet the cost of compliance arising from different (and complex) accountability regimes and second is the need to be permanently on the lookout for new opportunities.

Several universities have set up offices to support researchers in making applications for funding and fulfilling reporting requirements. The HEIs visited have responded positively in terms of securing additional sources of funding and in linking external and internal sources of funding. Often this is easier for the universities than for the IOTs and smaller colleges that have more limited capacity.

Collaboration between HEIs also helps to secure greater funding. An example is the Irish Centre for Cloud Computing and Commerce (IC4). It was established in 2012 at Dublin City University (DCU) in collaboration with University College of Cork (UCC) and Athlone Institute of Technology. IC4 is also the largest contributor to innovation partnerships in the country. IC4 operates like a club; the current 45 members pay a small fee to participate in research projects and co-steer IC4’s research agenda. To start a new project, at least two members need to state their intention to buy a non-exclusive license. Every four weeks formal all-member meetings are organised, with various informal and bilateral meetings in between. IC4 has targeted capacity building for SMEs. Support is provided for funding applications and in small applied research projects with SMEs up to 80% of the funding can be provided from IC4. In Innovation Voucher projects, the intellectual property is left with the company, which is apparently an exception in computing where the common approach is licensing. According to its management, it is on track towards acquiring one-third of its budget from competitive funding; a milestone for its fifth year of existence.

A successful example of reorganising existing resources while demonstrating self-confidence and key strengths in focusing teaching, research and entrepreneurship on citizens, society and grand challenges is also provided by DCU. Four strategic research areas have been defined and mapped onto the national research priority areas. In the initial consultation process, a small number of staff from each department were released on a half-time basis to perform the analysis. The first goal of DCU’s integrated strategy was to identify how to achieve an internal integration of staff focused on the creation of various interfaces between DCU and its stakeholder environment. The different skill sets required – e.g. technology knowledge, business development, commercialisation, marketing, and fundraising – were drawn from different parts of DCU (e.g. Invent, the Innovation and Enterprise Centre) and from newly hired staff.

A key initial challenge was to quickly build acceptance of a new type of structure. The Vice-President for Research steered the process and initiated a large-scale communication process to create commitment for the reallocation of resources within a new and broader framework (e.g. The Science and Technology Engagement Platform). The research office provides resources from an HEI-wide pool for each of the four strategic research themes and works closely with the implementing research teams. The research office supports principal investigators for a period of 12 to 18 months with guidance and mentoring, the development of impact case studies, and the handling of third-party funding. This has successfully raised the level of interaction and introduced a more interdisciplinary framework. The aim in the near future is to enhance the internal capacities through the development of an overarching support team which will cover various common areas, and use more efficiently specific expertise, such as dealing with the administration of EU funding, providing training sessions for staff, and ensuring a interdisciplinary approach is taken to research proposals and activities. Plans exist to deploy a DCU staff member to Brussels to liaise closely with research officers in the European Commission.

Incentivising innovation and knowledge exchange

Current pay structures and employment conditions within the Irish higher education system do not allow for bonus payments or other financial rewards for those who actively support the HEI’s entrepreneurial agenda other than where a share of the sale of intellectual property has been agreed. Individual HEIs, however, do provide other incentives including reduction in teaching loads (not possible in IOTs), in support of, for example, R&D activities. For example, in the University of Limerick (UL), third mission activities are considered part of the workload allocation model and are taken into account when promotional opportunities arise.

Irish HEIs stimulate staff and students to demonstrate excellence in education, research and societal engagement. All of the HEIs visited have President’s awards for this. At DCU achievements in industry engagement and dialogue with society are also recognised for promotional purposes, and four annual President’s awards recognise outstanding achievements in teaching and learning, research, engagement, and innovation. In particular, the latter has seen high numbers of applications from administrative and support staff. At UCC, significant efforts are underway to encourage and recognise staff and students who make an impact at institutional, local and national levels. The Staff Development Committee has introduced a range of programmes focused on staff motivation and staff recognition, which have proven to be important in attracting and retaining staff. One of these, the Staff Recognition Awards Programme, is now in its sixth year. In 2015, fourteen awards were available in five categories including: The Frank McGrath Perpetual Award for Equality and Welfare, the Impact Award, the Leadership Award, Exceptional Citizen Award, Enhancing the Student Experience Award, and Outstanding Colleague. Two impact awards were also developed to recognise achievements in the Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences (AHSS), and in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) fields. So far, no specific award has been considered which would recognise interdisciplinary achievements.

The collaboration between HEIs in Limerick through the Shannon Consortium (Box 3.2, above) has led to a growing number of innovative joint activities in education and research. The recent mapping of academic programmes identified several common areas. Different ways of organising joint delivery evenly and equitably across the binary system are currently being reviewed by the faculty heads in order to find solutions to overcome logistical challenges including the movement of students across the city for tuition at different campuses, the establishing of new classroom technologies to enable distance and online education and dealing with barriers in the recurrent grant allocation model (RGAM). This was deliberately organised at departmental level and not at senior management level in order to reach out to as many staff as possible. Regular two-hour workshops are organised for staff to exchange experience and to build awareness and skills around key issues, such as facilitating group work, assessment in experiential learning and others.

There are also examples of cases where delays and bottlenecks in capital development have led to office sharing arrangements across faculties and the mixing of staff from different disciplines within shared office space, which, in turn, have spurred organisational innovation. For example, this was the case at the Galway Mayo Institute of Technology. While not deliberately planned or intended this interdisciplinary mixing has resulted in more informal interaction amongst staff from different faculties, and subsequently more interdisciplinary collaboration including new interdisciplinary initiatives in teaching and research. Efforts are underway to further spread this as a practice to enhance structures and mechanisms for cross-department communication.


Ireland’s social and economic fabric needs a robust system for transforming knowledge into action. Many elements are already in place and well developed. Education, research, and innovation all combine together to create growth and social cohesion if promoted by talented people and supported by adequate policy. Investment is needed in all three components. Funding just one area will not be enough, like the pistons of an engine, all need to be properly maintained. Vital will be a quadruple helix bringing together HEIs, business, government and civil society.

Regional collaborative initiatives involving HEIs, such as the Regional Clusters and the Regional Skills Fora, are not only the building blocks of the 21st century Higher Education System in Ireland but the initial stage for the development of knowledge and innovation regions in Ireland and as such it is timely to devote renewed attention to the initiatives. To achieve the overall aim of these initiatives requires strengthening research capacity and capability, promoting enterprise and innovation, and attracting and retaining talent from home and abroad. A future phase in regional initiatives needs to focus on knowledge producers, users and transformers from businesses, industry and civil society. The buy-in from all HEIs involved in regional initiatives will be of utmost importance for their success. Strong, clear and non-excessive governance arrangements are essential.

The research prioritisation exercise saw a greater emphasis on the impact of research and its relevance to the enterprise base. Addressing societal challenges increasingly requires interisciplinary collaboration between medical, technological and scientific research interwoven with research questions and practices from all fields. This could be strengthened, for example, in the form of special calls developed for research programmes and projects that promote inter- and transdisciplinary collaborations. Innovation 2020, Ireland’s strategy for research and development, science and technology, is a good platform which recognises the importance of continuing to support excellent research across all disciplines.

The introduction of a national evaluation exercise, which applies a common approach to all funders and evaluates research groups and not individual researchers according to performance and agreed contracts using international criteria and experts would be a way to ensure the provision of essential state investment in human capital and physical infrastructure, and, in turn, a continued performance of the research system in Irish higher education.

Finally, mobility opportunities for research staff, including academics, into industry and vice versa with a view to enhancing in-firm capabilities and university business knowledge links are important to strengthen entrepreneurship and innovation in Irish higher education. A framework for bi-directional movement of personnel from industry/academia may warrant consideration.


EUA (2013), Designing Strategies for Efficient Funding of Higher Education in Europe, European University Association, Brussels.

EUA (2015), DEFINE Thematic Report: University Mergers in Europe, published online, (accessed 11 February 2017).

European Commission (2015), The Knowledge Future: Intelligent Policy Choices for Europe 2050, Brussels, published online, (accessed 11 February 2017).

Department of Enterprise, Jobs and Innovation (2015), Review of Progress in Implementing Research Prioritisation. Report of the Independent Panel, published online, (accessed 11 February 2017).

HEInnovate (2017), “Shared governance, leadership and regional development: A case study”, case_study.pdf (accessed 11 February 2017).

OECD (2015), OECD Digital Economy Outlook, OECD Publishing, Paris, (accessed 11 February 2017).


← 1. In Irish higher education mature learners are students that are at least 23 years of age at the time they enter the study programme.

← 2. See EUA (2013) for an overview and details of strategies used for funding European universities.

← 3. OECD, 2015 Based on OECD, National Accounts Database, ISIC Rev.4; Eurostat, National Accounts Statistics and national sources, April 2015.