The process of national recovery that eventually brought Ireland the Celtic Tiger (in the good years before 2005) began in 1987 with the ‘Programme for National Recovery’. That plan was agreed with the social partners, and its essence was a rise in productivity accompanying a reconfiguration of public expenditure. It produced quite rapid results, and by the end of the 1980s Ireland was well on the road to stable public finances and significant economic growth.
I suspect it is not a coincidence that the plan published yesterday by the coalition government to restore public finances is called the ‘National Recovery Plan‘. The intention and hope is that the plan will similarly help to restore confidence and a sense of purpose. Whether it will achieve this remains to be seen, and indeed whether it will survive in its current outline should there be a change of government (as must be anticipated) after the coming general election. But it will be very difficult for any incoming government to change the basic parameters without offending those providing the money for Ireland right now.
From the perspective of higher education, the key message of the plan appears to be that support will be maintained, more or less. Staffing in education overall is to fall over the coming year, but will then rise again (in contrast with the rest of the public service) over subsequent years, from 93,700 in 2011 to 95,750 in 2014. Academic staff, in the meantime, will be expected to work ‘an additional hour per week’ (page 70), an adjustment which will not be easy to measure specifically. Section 4.9.3 then states as follows (page 78):
‘The Government recognises the importance to society of widespread and equitable opportunities for access to higher education and provides very substantial resources to this purpose. As well as the wider benefits for society, higher education directly benefits its participants through better lifetime earnings opportunities. Over the period of the Plan, it is intended that a higher student contribution to the cost of higher education will be made.’
The latter change is explained more specifically later in the document (page 120), where the proposal is stated to be:
‘Replace Student Services Charge with a flat higher education student contribution of €2,000, and introduce €200 charge for PLC students.’
This, as I have already noted, must amount to the reintroduction of a tuition fee, as it appears no longer to be linked to ‘student services’. It also appears to be intended to have immediate effect, as the full yield from the higher fee is to apply in 2011. It is not absolutely clear whether this yield is to be additional to existing public expenditure on higher education, or to replace some of it. The Budget and Book of Estimates in December should provide that information.
Regarding research, the Plan re-affiorms the objectives of the Innovation Taskforce that reported earlier this year, and then explains public policy on research as follows (page 43):
‘Productive, high calibre research, undertaken by highly skilled research teams working closely with industry partners will continue to be a core investment priority for Government. This new competitive advantage will be one of the key drivers of Ireland’s economic recovery. But there must be a greater focus on the commercialisation of research outputs. Only world- class research projects should be supported and researchers need not necessarily be engaged across all disciplines. In sectors where we cannot be world leaders, the focus should move to technology transfer and utilisation of research elsewhere.’
The document also states that industry-academic partnerships in research should continue to be promoted.
It would seem fair to say that the National Recovery Plan places some emphasis on education and research, and appears to suggest that they are priorities over the coming years. More detailed financial plans set out in the Budget will provide more information. Of course, Irish higher education is by now very seriously under-funded, and there are huge challenges ahead, but it may be that the position will not worsen significantly over the years ahead.