Building a brave new world of education

Published on 26 August, 2007. By John Reynolds 

Diarmuid Hegarty used to lecture in accountancy and economics at UCD. Now he owns and runs Dublin’s Griffith College.

Turnover last year was €22m plus about €3m from its 700-room student accommodation. Sitting on seven acres on the South Circular Road, the whole development is worth about €120m, so Hegarty could be worth between €30m and €40m, dependent on debt.

He and his fellow shareholders’ all have solid backgrounds in accountancy. The business is currently breaking even, having just spent €15 million on renovations and a 600-seater conference centre, which is fully booked for the next 12 months.

When he paid IR£1.75m for the college site in 1991, it was an out-of town derelict site whose crumbling buildings were littered with dead pigeons. Today its campus bustles with about 8,000 students during term time, surrounded by an attractive and prosperous suburb of the city.

Since the Leaving Cert results came out last week, the phones in the college’s reception have been ringing off the hook as eager students from all over Ireland and abroad call to find out about courses. “Law and journalism are the most popular,” says Hegarty. The education business can be quite fickle and trend-driven. Photography, interior design and fashion design courses have just been introduced. MBAs at its Graduate Business School are also popular.

The company has smaller colleges in Cork, Limerick and China, where it has a joint venture with seven universities. In Moscow it has a contract to train all of KPMG’s accountants, which is worth about €720,000. “Eventually we hope to offer degree courses there,” he says.

Hegarty reveals that several foreign buyers in the private education business have approached him. “But it’s a life’s work. We’ve built it and we know where we want to go. It’s not just a business for us, because we have shared values and a respect for education. Any buyer or outside investor would have to share those values.”

With his law and accountancy qualifications, Hegarty never saw himself as the head of a private college. “When I was an accountant, I thought I’d perhaps end up in management. But my favourite job would probably be a builder. And if not that, I’d prefer to work as a barrister.”

He admits that the college is as vulnerable as any other to an economic downturn. However, he has a mixture of “very well-paid” full-time and part-time staff (who aren’t as well-paid), which gives a degree of flexibility. “Eventually things will slow down and so we’ll be able to adapt to it.”

Griffith’s students come from 56 different countries and foreign students account about 35 per cent of full-timers and about 10 per cent of part-timers, “so if there’s a downturn in the economies of India and China, for example, then we’ll feel the effects of it,” he says.

This year’s Leaving Cert results show that fewer students are taking higher level maths and science and Hegarty has noticed a decline in enrolments on Griffith’s computing and science degree course. “But it’s part of a wider trend that students are less numerate and less literate. There’s been a dumbing down in secondary education,” he says

A reintroduction of the Primary Certificate exam – taken in the final year of national school – is needed, he suggests. “It was the equivalent of the 11 plus exam in Britain and it focused on the 3Rs – reading, writing and arithmetic, which were three essential skills that are declining.”

A self-confessed ideologue, Hegarty isn’t a big fan of the Department of Education. . Several times during the interview, he leaves his boardroom-style table to make a compelling case for radically overhauling our education system, striding around the room as he does so, passing prints adorning the walls and family photos on a mantlepiece opposite his desk.

“Privatisation in medicine, telecoms and even slowly in power generation is bringing choice. But all these sectors of the economy are relatively trivial compared to education, which is perhaps the most important area of people’s lives.” It’s evident where the calling to be a barrister comes from: he could be arguing in a courtroom.

“Imagine going to buy a car where you have to give the salesman a list of ten cars and he then comes back to you in six months and says which car you can have. That’s what we’re doing with the CAO and the points system. The Department for Education is a lobbying body for the teachers’ unions and the current system protects teachers’ votes. It doesn’t focus on learners’ needs.”

Competition between education providers would “sharpen the edge and hone the quality of courses.” In Norway, the State gives students a 75 per cent loan and 25 per cent grant to go to university, giving students the purchasing power to choose where they go. There is no points system or free third level education. And if a student passes their exams, the loan is reduced to 60 per cent and the grant increased to 40 per cent, giving an incentive to succeed.” The funding covers both fees and maintenance and it increases social mobility, he adds.

Critics argue that this would be a step towards mass commodification of education, and that eventually investment banks or multinational corporations will give out degrees. But the Leaving Cert is part of the problem too, Hegarty argues.

“It’s a mechanistic method of allocating artificially limited university courses. Students are learning by rote to answer the questions most likely to come up in the exam, but it should help to develop people’s intellect. There’s no liberal arts element to it, so there’s no wider outlook. It’s bullshit,” he adds.

The decline in humanities and classics degrees has also contributed to the problem. “Students who took those tend to have a more open and problem-solving mind. There definitely should be some element of liberal arts education that opens minds. Many courses are very utilitarian so that students can start earning as quickly as possible. It’s something that parents, employers and perhaps professional bodies should look at.”

Allowing private operators doesn’t mean students receive a poorer quality education. Anyone, even if there isn’t a history of going to university in their family, can go to a private college. Employers demand that courses are of a certain standard. The degree standard has to include the wider contextual or liberal arts-based element. Students see their education as an investment and if they want to graduate and get a job, they have to perform to that standard, Hegarty argues.

“At the moment, we’ve got an intellectual elite. But eventually we’ll have 90 per cent of students in third level. Standards won’t be dumbed-down, but we’ll have a wider scale of qualifications that will be more relevant to people’s jobs or in areas of intellectual development that interests them.” When I point out that more people will have to take postgraduate degrees or doctorates in order to compete, Hegarty admits that they will do so if it’s relevant to their careers.

A greater role for private colleges in education could also save taxpayers’ money, however. In 1999, Hegarty spent a year trying to convince the Department for Education to accept his tender to provide computing and science degree courses. He would have charged them IR£5,800 per student for the first two years, with a third year industry placement, which was paid for by an employer. The Department wouldn’t accept his tender and ended up paying the public sector IR£30,000 per student.

It seems this former lecturer and perhaps future barrister will be arguing his case for some time to come.

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