Going for broke

A week or so ago a British government official, the Director General for Science and Research Adrian Smith, was reported as saying that a number of UK universities were ‘facing bankruptcy’. He was basing this warning on the government’s delay in lifting the cap on ‘top up’ fees, currently standing at £3,000. In other words, he was saying that unless the universities could charge fees above that amount their income would not be sufficient to avoid insolvency.

That should perhaps be put in perspective. Let us take an average size mid-ranking British university: let us take Lancaster University, which as it happens has roughly the same number of students as my own institution, Dublin City University. For the academic year 2007-08 Lancaster received from the English funding council a recurrent grant of £43,653,000; this translates into €49,391,000 at today’s exchange rate. The recurrent grant awarded to DCU during the same year was €35,540,000. In addition Lancaster was able to charge a top-up fee up to the permitted maximum of £3,000 per student; deducting from this the Irish student registration charge would still mean that Lancaster, in addition to the €14m or so that it received in its recurrent grant over and above what DCU received, also could charge some €20m in fees above the level paid under free fees to DCU. In other words, in that academic year Lancaster was roughly €34m better off than DCU. And in this state it is considered at risk of bankruptcy.

The comparison with Lancaster is arbitrary, but is nonetheless typical for the UK.

It is worth mentioning this because the Minister for Education and Science, Mr Batt O’Keeffe TD, in announcing his ‘forensic audit’ of third level finances implied that the Irish universities might not be providing value for money. While we should of course be open to any such audit, and while recognising that the taxpayer has a right to know that money invested in higher education is well spent, it is nevertheless remarkable how the Irish university sector has been able to stay afloat in the context of such wholly inadequate resourcing. Nor should it be surprising to see that most Irish universities have been sliding into deficit, in some cases a very substantial deficit.

It has been my policy in DCU to run a balanced budget, and we have been able to do so, in increasingly adverse circumstances. But this isn’t necessarily just good news. The resources needed to run a higher education institute offering degree programmes of high quality and world class research are far above those allocated to us here, so that if we have to work within the budgets available to us we must lose the battle to compete on quality and excellence with universities in other countries. Nor is this an agenda that we can think about, assess and analyse for a while until we get to some answer.

As readers of this blog will know, I have been arguing the case for tuition fees – introduced forthwith – as an answer to this problem. But let us put that aside for a moment and say that any solution is a good solution if it allows us to pursue quality and excellence in a sustainable financial environment that is secure from occasional government decisions to withdraw funds or restrain their growth below inflation. If that’s on offer, we should take it. But what we cannot do any longer is to pretend that we can muddle through with a declining income from our main funder and still seek to be in the upper reaches of the global rankings. That cannot be done.

Some universities in this country may soon be technically insolvent. Some are facing accumulated deficits in relation to which there is no realistic prospect that they can be clawed back any time soon through a running surplus. This system is in crisis, and we need to move from discussion and analysis to solution. And soon.

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6 Comments on “Going for broke”

  1. Jilly Says:

    Well, exactly. The way the rhetoric of ‘over-spending’ Irish universities flies in the face of our realities never ceases to amaze me. And the current situation clearly can’t go on.

  2. ultan Says:

    I don’t think it’s unreasonable for taxpayers to demand a demonstration of value for money. Anyone can balance books as we have seen in the case of the banks up to recently.

    Interestingly I believe that IFUT will push for fees exemption for their members. What do you think of that?

    • Thanks, Ultan – and as you can see, I agree with you about demonstrating value for money. What I am concerned about is that the value for money question isn’t a ‘real’ one at all, in the sense that it has been asked and answered a few times already, and no action was taken on foot of any of the answers.

      Fee exemption for IFUT members? I can only say, why? Do they mean fee exemptions for staff?

  3. Jilly Says:

    The very fact that Irish universities continue to function, let alone provide the quality of education which we do, on the funding we have, is not just a ‘demonstration of value for money’, it’s a miracle.

  4. ultan Says:

    Yes, that is what I mean. I would agree with you this should not be the case too. It frankly would be a case of the asinine hypocrisy for any trade union to adopt a public position on fees either way and then campaign for exemptions for their members regardless.

    So, why not meet the other argument head on and put a value for money statement on http://www.dcu.ie with some examples? I doubt very much if taxpayers will read any govt report on the matter now (or indeed, if certain ministers would either, given their record), but they would see it on the site.

  5. […] context of the size of the sector. What is an issue is that Irish institutions are funded at around half the level per undergraduate than UK institutions of comparable size. Their block-grant is roughly the same, but the UK institutions can charge […]

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