Irish higher education: mind the funding gap

Towards the end of my time as President of Dublin City University, I calculated that over my ten-year term of office the funding received for educating each Irish and EU undergraduate student (the unit of resource) had, after allowing for inflation, decreased by around 40 per cent. With the exception of the student registration charge (which had by then become the ‘student contribution charge’), all funding came from the government. The actual amounts of funding had increased over the period, but this was because of a mixture of inflation and significantly increased student numbers; once you adjusted for that the picture was very different. Even during the affluent Celtic Tiger years the funding in real terms declined significantly.

When the credit crunch and the resulting recession began in 2008, it became clear very quickly that major funding cuts were about to hit the system. Some of this was absorbed through reductions in staff pay, but what was much more significant was the reduction in staff numbers, forced on the system through the notorious ‘employment control framework’. The continuing squeeze on budgets has in the meantime also led to other dramatic effects, with universities having to face impossible decisions regarding staffing, library and technology resources, and other such vital parts of the infrastructure.

Nobody doubts that recent Irish governments have had to take very difficult decisions, and it would have been unrealistic to suggest that higher education should (or could) escape that. But it must be remembered that Ireland’s ability to generate either inward investment or indigenous entrepreneurship increasingly depends on a successful university sector. This is now at risk. It would be foolish to think that a starved sector enjoying half of the per capita funding of other OECD countries could compete with them for investment or for skilled leaders.

The problem for Ireland is that very few people are making this point explicitly (although there are some exceptions, including Dick Ahlstrom’s recent piece in the Irish Times). Does anyone know, or say, how much funding a student must attract for that student to be able to receive a quality education? In England Oxford University suggested to the Browne review that it was £16,000. Perhaps more realistically, an American study recently argued that the minimum quality threshold lay at $15,000 per student – roughly €11,500. Ireland’s funding is now very far below that.

Ireland is facing a crisis on a number of fronts, but right now the asset stripping of higher education is creating an additional problem that may make an economic recovery both less likely and much less sustainable. And most alarming of all is that all this is happening with very little public noise, perhaps in part because the system has been distracted by a very doubtful new framework of restructuring. If I were still working in Ireland, I would be very afraid.

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29 Comments on “Irish higher education: mind the funding gap”

  1. V.H Says:

    A quality education doesn’t need to be an expensive education. Nor does it automatically mean an expensive education mean the result is quality. If it did we mightn’t have so many illiterate and innumerate people passing through the 2nd level system. But in a country that refused point blank to draw taxation in any realistic way from those with true surplus. While simultaneously has a standing army of those drawing from the public purse the end result is so near the feudal it’s laughable.
    In your calculations you really need to factor in those that have left the country for however you slice the tax pie unless they actually begin to tax wealth not labour the situation can only go one way.

    • I dont think I agree. While adequate funding does not guarantee quality, inadequate funding does guarantee below par quality. The cost varies of course from subject to subject, but high quality higher education now is expensive – it cannot be done on the cheap.

      • Ok, so if we don’t spend money we won’t get good quality and if we do spend money we won’t get good quality. Which is better value for money?

        • Well as you know, I didn’t say that. Quality always requires work. But we need it, and if we don’t pay for it we definitely won’t get it. And if we don’t get it, other unpleasant consequences follow.

          • Work may be one route to quality, but in industry ingenuity and skills tend are more important, because value for money is always an issue. We need to “work smart not hard”.

        • Andrew Says:

          Why won’t we get good quality Brian? Ireland has never spent enough on third level (by international norms) so what is the basis for your assertion? By the HEA’s own reckoning funding per student is 60% of that in the UK. Whilst adequate funding does not ensure quality, as Ferdinand notes there is a point at which inadequate funding ensures substandard quality. So whilst there are certainly steps to be taken to ensure better teaching and research activity in Irish Institutions, at the end of the day there is only so far you can stretch the “do more with less” line. For example, Irish Universities have an average student: academic staff ratio of about 24:1, rising to over 30:1 in some places (figures from HEA report on the front pages of its website). Compare that to Caltech for example, regular topper of world rankings, at 3:1, about 7:1 in Oxbridge etc. So if Professor Caltech is teaching a class of ten and correcting ten 5,000 word essays, then Professor Oxbridge is teaching and correcting 23, whilst Professor UCD/UCC/NUIG etc is teaching and correcting 80.

          • OK, Andrew, so we have spent less than other countries and Ferdinand says that our quality is good. A lot of this discussion seems to indicate that there is a poor correlation between money spent and quality achieved. While we’re here it might be worth noting that research at other levels of education class size is not the strongest variable related to quality of learning. Throwing money and resources at the existing system seems to be a very unimaginative way of improving quality. But as I previously said, in difficult economic times, quality is not the only issue. Quantity and cost are also issues. If we could get 80% quality at 20% of the cost, would that not be good value. Surely the Scots reading this appreciate that.

            Oxbridge and the Ivy League can indulge in expensive high quality education, but we cannot facilitate mass higher education using those simple expensive methods.

      • V.H Says:

        You see the issue I’ve with this position is it’s a rendering somewhat of the ‘pay peanuts, get monkeys’ we heard so much a few years ago. And we ended up with very expensive primates even though we were paying over the odds.

  2. Rich Says:

    The vicious cycle is compounded by the continued emigration of the educated, who might be supportive of that more creative taxation on wealth rather than labor. But the exodus continues and those who remain feel cheated by the rewards of their own education and so attitudes that treat education as a luxury endure, and there’s little political will for reform.

  3. I agree with VH in what he says that spending lots of money does not guarantee quality. Is this surprising in a system where the “teachers” have mostly received little training in teaching and refuse to be told how they could improve. I spoke recently at a Union of Students of Ireland event recently where I said that the teaching I received in university in the seventies was very poor and asked if it had changed much. I was quite surprised by the amount of head-shaking from the audience. Why would the Irish government throw money at a system that is not doing a good job when it is short of money? There are people who know how to get the cost of a “good” course down to about €5,000 per year. Perhaps in the current situation we cannot afford a “quality education” and “good” would suffice if we could get it.

    • I don’t agree that Irish higher education has not been doing a good job. No doubt not perfect, but still good, and in very difficult circumstances. Lecturers do now get much more training, and the system collects and addresses good and bad feedback.

      • One way to show that Irish higher education is good is to compare it with dysfunctional systems of higher education internationally. How would others prove that Irish higher education was good?

        I’m not sure if the universities in Ireland operate a better system of continuous improvement that the Institutes of Technology but I can’t see any great effort to address negative feedback from students.

        Here’s a fun thing to do. Describe the quality assurance system in a university to someone who works in a private service industry. watch their reaction.

  4. Al Says:

    There seems to be a tendency to see higher education as the only runner as a solution to the economic/ unemployment problem.
    We see the health services pushing delivery back into the community with the idea being that it is a more effective form of delivery.
    To develop the analogy are you arguing for more consultants here rather than nurses, when nurses may be more effective and cost efficient?

  5. Andrew Says:

    The essential problem is we want (by we I mean our policy makers) want the best of everything. So we want to have mass participation at a high quality third level system but don’t want to pay the going rate for it. That is the situation we currently have (as things get worse year on year with cuts to exchequer funding and increases in student numbers), and seem to be stuck with as ministers order another report and do nothing etc. Solutions are to examine alternative funding models or examine the presumption that mass participation is desirable (so we send more than twice as many of our school leavers to third level than the Germans do). But somewhere along the line someone needs to make a decision that is going to be politically sensitive but evidence based, and that simply is not how things work in Ireland.

  6. James Fryar Says:

    I’m actually quite surprised at some of the comments here so let me say exactly what I think – Irish educators, at all levels, do an incredible job given the resources available. This has been the assessment of various OECD groups for many years. Yes there are problems. Yes there are things that could be done better. But I for one am sick and tired of the mealy-mouthed naysayers who continually whinge about the ‘quality’ of Irish education. I’m also sick to death of the sanctimonious preaching by those in the ‘private sector’. What? The private sector that destroyed the economy and needed the public to bail them out? The private sector that left ghost estates around the nation because of their greed, stupidity, and failure to project costs, demand and the market? The private sector that funnels money around the globe to avoid paying taxes? Here’s something to try: look at ‘Quality Assurance’ in the private sector and guess what percentage of it is utter nonsense invented by bored, underachieving middle management in an attempt to justify their own worth to their bosses. And don’t get me started on Human Resources …

    Anyway, will more money make for a better education system? Based on international evidence, yes. Will the public be willing to fund that? Based on the economic situation caused by elements of the private sector, no.

    I personally believe that the only solution is varying degrees of public funding depending on course. You want to study nursing? Fine, the public need more nurses. You can have your education for free. You want to study law? Well, the market is already saturated. You can pay 50% of the costs. You want to study ancient Hebrew. Fine, the public will pay for that. But if 300 students want to study ancient Hebrew? Em, no. We’ll not pay full fees for that.

  7. Interested Says:

    Interestingly $15,000 is roughly £9,900 – some £900 more than the maximum fees charged in England and about £1,400 more than the average the Scottish Government provides to its universities… worrying times for those of you North of the border as well as in Ireland, I’d have thought!

    • Interested Says:

      Sorry – typo there. Should read ‘about £2,400 more than the average the Scottish Government provides to its universities…’

  8. cormac Says:

    Good for you James Fryar. Sounds like someone who has direct experience of thesystem, like Ferdinand.
    Dick Ahlstrom’s piece is very good, it’s a pity he wasn’t writing on education years ago

    • “Good for you James Fryar. Sounds like someone who has direct experience of the system, like Ferdinand.” – True. The way the public generally recognise someone who is inside the system is someone who will defend the status quo, even if it is indefensible. But we know this is not true. I mean, I’ve been in the system for 30 years.

      • no-name Says:

        Eh? Exactly which statement in your reply are you claiming is both not true and known by you and others to be untrue?

        • cormac Says:

          And if its indefensible, in what way is this so? I work approximately 15-20 hours unpaid overtime each week during the teaching semester to keep my research, and far more than this during the summer – what banker works such unacknowledged hours?

        • It is true that you can spot someone within the system by their willingness to defend the system.

          I was being tongue in cheek in suggesting that we are an open minded bunch by pointing out that I am 30 years in the system and still do not defend it.

          Well done Cormac on the hard work on research. I hope it is good stuff. When I was in college we had some world class researchers teaching us. Some of them could not teach for peanuts. I hope your research does not cause your teaching to suffer.

          On the bankers, I imagine it requires long hours of hard work to successfully rip off a whole country.

          • no-name Says:

            “I am 30 years in the system and still do not defend it.”

            If the system did not exist, would you be where you are?

          • Actually there’s a fair amount of survey evidence that the best researchers are also the best teachers. There are exceptions of course, but the pattern is clear.

            I agree however that good and conscientious teaching is vital.

          • I would be interested in hearing about this evidence that research activity is correlated to quality teaching. I have heard that such evidence does not exist. I know of some that are good at both, but generally because they are both clever and committed. For many I see that research distracts them for the effort needed to really improve their teaching. For example, what percentage of lecturers have “flipped” their classroom (ala Eric Mazur, Physics, Harvard) a technique that occurred to me while a student in the 1970s and has since been shown by research (Yay!) to be extremely effective.

            There have been some very strange reactions to my postings. I am indeed seconded to an administrative position where it is “nice” even if I have given up 10 weeks of summer holidays with no research responsibilities. I feel lucky to have this opportunity. Now why this recent secondment would make my previous 25 years teaching irrelevant and me ineligible to comment, I’m not quite sure.

            As for my expressed hope that Cormac’s research does not effect his teaching, that statement only draws attention to the fact that it can, not that it necessarily does. However, there is an argument that it may well do in all cases. If I put 40 hours per week effort into my teaching and 20 hours into my research, I might be able to teach better if I put 60 hours effort into my teaching.

          • bealoideas Says:

            There is good reason to believe that an active researcher will excel at teaching even if it’s not an innate talent. A researcher at the top of his field will always ooze insight into the most recent trends. In contrast a teaching focused academic is far less likely to be up to date or to be able to offer as good student projects. I know star academics that are not remotely charismatic but teach well on the back of their research. So in sum being a great researcher won’t make you a charismatic teacher but it will allow your students to develop more than compared to a teaching specialist.

          • @bealoideas That’s a plausible theory of why doing research might improve teaching and contrasts with my plausible theory of how it might conflict with teaching. Now I wonder what the research data says.

  9. cormac Says:

    “I hope your research does not cause your teaching to suffer”. Why would you assume that? Where does this oft-repreated assumption come from? It’s very insulting.

    People who go beyond the normal bounds of duty do so because they are interested in their subject. If they’re interested in their subject, they tend to be organised and teach it well. Most of the best lecturers I had in college tended to be very active in research (with some exceptions), and I see a similar pattern in my own generation.

    As it happens, each year I get asked to teach far more courses than I can possibly agree to, mainly because of feedback from students. Have a look at the courses on my blog if you like.

    Here’s a question: Are you sure those dodgy lecturers of yours were world-class researchers? who told you that? Would you have known a good teacher?

  10. cormac Says:

    Re Brian Mulligan’s comment above, I see he is currently “on secondment as a Programme Manager responsible for online learning development in the Centre for Online Learning at the Institute of Technology Sligo”.
    Must be nice. On the theme of funding cuts in third level, I think it’s a bit rich for someone on secondment to cast aspersions on those of us who manage to combine full-time teaching with research

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