Looking into the abyss…

It would be hard to exaggerate the potential catastrophe now facing the university sector in Ireland. Last week the Irish Independent reported that one university had a ‘shortfall’ – presumably a deficit – of €16m in its current spending. In the case of another university, it is claimed (unconfirmed by the university) that it has issued a redundancy notice to a member of the academic staff. When the university heads recently were questioned by the Oireachtas (Irish Parliament) Joint Committee on Education and Science, most indicated that in the current year they would be recording a deficit, in some cases a substantial one.

This situation has arisen because, over recent years, public funding per student has not kept pace with the growth in numbers in the university sector, In real terms, there has been a very substantial decline in funding per student, which for a while the institutions were able to absorb, though in part this was possible because some key expenditure on maintenance, equipment and services was cut or stopped altogether. Then came the Budget and Book of Estimates announced in December 2008; and while the allocation to third level was not reduced as dramatically as some had feared, nonetheless there was a further significant cutback. And now we are all waiting for the further bad news as the government struggles to control public expenditure in the current credit crisis and recession. The likelihood is that we will be cut further, and even if pay is reduced (and that would not be an easy thing to bring about) we will almost certainly not benefit as institutions, as we would expect the savings to be clawed back by Government.

I am a realist, and I know the economic picture is the way it is. The steps being taken, or being predicted, are unavoidable as we try to regain control over the national economy in its global setting. But I also know that our current position – never mind one following a further cut – is untenable, and that some universities will face issues never experienced before; some are already technically insolvent, or would be so judged if they were businesses. My own university, DCU, has avoided deficits so far, but that position is becoming increasingly hard to sustain.

Unless something happens very quickly to alleviate this situation, some universities – and soon maybe the whole sector – will be crippled in such a way that a recovery will take years, during which our ability to provide quality education and research will have been seriously compromised. and during which institutions and their staff will live in constant crisis with dramatic consequences.

I do not believe that it will be possible to remedy this through public funding, in the sense that the money for such funding simply isn’t there. We have to face up to the fact that our sources of income need to be more varied. In 2007 across the sector as a whole, only 14 per cent of income came from sources other than the taxpayer; in some universities it was as low as 5 per cent. In my own university it was 24 per cent, but that is out of line with the sector as a whole. That creates a reliance on a single source of funding which is quite simply unhealthy, and throws the system into panic when that particular source is in trouble, as is the case now.

Amongst many other reasons, to which I shall return, this makes the case for tuition fees for those who can afford them an unanswerable one. Staying as we are, while hoping for more abundant taxpayer money that never materialises, will create a disaster from which it will be hard to recover. The time to act is now.

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One Comment on “Looking into the abyss…”

  1. Cian Says:

    Of course, reintroducing fees, while probably necessary is unlikely to be of as much help as was previously thought. While the government’s income is dropping, it’s worth remembering that everyone else’s is too. This is going to leave a far smaller pool of people who can afford university even without the prospect of fees. And while normally I would have no issue with the idea of students going into debt to afford this, I wonder whether credit will be available in the current financial climate, either from the private or the state sector to allow them to come through.

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