On Marian Finucane’s RTE radio show this Sunday morning there was a discussion about university tuition fees and related matters, and as part of that there was an intriguing contribution by Dr Sean Barrett of Trinity College Dublin. He argued in essence that universities in Ireland are over-funded. In support of these thesis he suggested that current funding per student stands at €13,300, but that for what he called ‘chalk and talk’ subjects such as his own (Economics) the actual cost per student is €1,100. These figures were taken at face value by the other guests on the show.
First, the figure of €13,300 is not a meaningful one. I presume that Dr Barrett arrived at it by dividing the total recurrent grant and fee income by the total student numbers. But that would be a misleading figure,as it takes in excessively expensive programmes such as medicine and pharmacy, as well as the overseas student fee. In the meantime his suggested cost per student of €1,100 (he also mentioned 4c per student per lecture, by the way) is interesting. I don’t know what he thinks constitutes the cost, but presumably from the figure he is looking at marginal costs only, so he is discounting the cost of providing a building, equipping it, heating it, cleaning it, repairing it, providing security for it, and so forth. I imagine he is talking about academic staffing costs only. Trinity College has around 15,000 students, so he believes that the cost of the College’s educational programmes is (or should be) €16.5 million. I think that may buy him around 200 members of academic staff. In fact, Trinity has over 800. So he is suggesting that the College can safely cut its staff numbers by 75 per cent, or if you like, worsen the student-staff ratio by 400 per cent. In short, the point being made on the show had absolutely no merit on a factual basis. The implication that Dr Barrett was trying to advance – that the bulk of the money was being wasted on bureaucracy and unnecessary strategy planning – has in fact no evidence to back it.
My reason for mentioning this is not to be unduly critical of Sean Barrett, who has a strong record as an economist willing to raise difficult issues, and who moreover has an excellent record of providing support for students. But it occurs to me that we are in danger of taking all sorts of policy decisions on higher education in Ireland based, at best, on anecdotal evidence or calculations made on the backs of envelopes. Or to put it another way, using evidence as a basis for decision-making seems not to be in fashion. I have lost count of the number of times senior politicians have said that they have ‘evidence’ of various shortcomings in universities, only to find that this evidence consists of complaints they have come across in their postbags. Such complaints should of course be taken seriously, but they are not ‘evidence’ of anything. We need to overcome the temptation to use hear-say and anecdotal stories as a good basis for policy formulation, or even for establishing policy formulation reviews.
The same is true of unproven assertions. In the same programme Sean Barrett stated, as a fact, that Science Foundation Ireland and other science funding programmes had produced no results. In fact, the contrary evidence is overwhelming, and the significance of science research is supported in particular by those bodies whose task it is to secure investment for new business and employment.
Opinionated public discussion is a good thing as it encourages us to assess and question; but on its own it is not a basis for decision-making. We should not be making policy on the back of the views of the last person propping up the bar, however emphatic his pronouncements. We need to see that what we are deciding in relation to higher education is vital for the future of the country, and requires proper analysis based on the facts.
There is always room for a debate, and we must accept that there are different policies that could be adopted. But the case needs to be made every time, and the only acceptable case is one based on properly assembled evidence. So, no more wild assertions, and no more anecdotal reasons for new policies. Let the evidence speak.
And as a postscript, it is worth repeating the point of my previous post that we will run the risk of this kind of uninformed debate unless the universities themselves get better at communicating our key messages.