So where is the Budget taking us?

The main emphasis in the early reporting on the government’s Budget for 2010 has been on social welfare benefits and public sector pay. Of course, these matters are significant both in terms of their impact on the exchequer and in terms of the element of controversy associated with them. The government has stayed largely true to its determination to tackle the current budget deficit through expenditure cuts rather than through fiscal adjustments. The impact of all this in both financial and political terms will become clearer shortly.

Other adjustments in public expenditure have so far received less immediate attention, and higher education funding is amongst those. It may be significant that the Minister for Finance, in his budget speech, only used the word ‘education’ twice, both in the same passage (concerning itself with measures to allow people to return to education at this time). Higher education, universities, institutes of technology and other colleges were not mentioned by him at all. Even the recently popular term ‘innovation’ doesn’t get much attention. All of this may be a little curious, because education and innovation (however the latter may be understood) are at the heart of the country’s economic recovery strategy.

It is all the more surprising because, when considered in detail, the Book of Estimates does not contain as much of an assault on higher education as some might have imagined it would. The allocation for third level institutions is down by 4 per cent compared with last year. In ordinary times this would have university leaders foaming at the mouth and talking about the imminent demise of civilisation we know it; not this time. Many may in fact have expected something worse and are quietly relieved. However, as student numbers have grown the impact may still be very significant, and how some of the institutions are able to manage this remains to be seen. Some higher education institutions in Ireland have been in very significant financial crisis already.

The overall budget for research and discovery, including R&D that may be closer to market, has also gone down, but again not by as much as some had feared. The Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI) is safe for now. Expenditure on SFI and related research programmes sponsored by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment will be down by 7 per cent compared with the past year, and while that is serious it will allow the continued funding of high value research. Research programmes sponsored by the Higher Education Authority are down 5 per cent.

What is missing from all this is an overall vision for higher education, or a medium to long term view of what strategic objective are to be pursued by this country’s universities. Of course this may be more easily found in the report of the Higher Education Strategic Review group. In the meantime we may be able to handle this year’s reductions in grants, but we should remind ourselves that Irish higher education was already very seriously under-funded and is being increasingly crippled in attempting to tackle our position in global rankings.

And unpopular though it is in many circles, nothing in this Budget and Estimates persuades me that, in the medium term, Irish universities could survive without the reintroduction of student tuition fees or some other form of student contribution. It is time for us to decide what kind of university sector we want for Ireland, and how we can secure it financially.

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6 Comments on “So where is the Budget taking us?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Do I understand that you believe that preventing the Mature student from getting the Grant if they are in receipt of the Allowance.
    I sorry but at your end of the Educational spectrum it may not seem to bad.

    If you get a chance read JJ Lee in, Ireland, 1912-1985: Politics and Society. You will find that at all points Finance acted to remove all those in its view were surplus to their requirement. Mostly in a very active way. This Budget is nothing more that the continuation of this Policy and a charter for huge movement of People out of the State. All while leaving the fat FFer of the officer class sitting pretty, in receipt of Government contracts and taking his holidays under one of the Cap’s or grinding his teeth on Bequia across the seven miles at Mustique. On the other hand the foot-soldier of FF will be nothing more that fodder for another Channel 4 programme like Shameless.

  2. Ros Says:

    What about the fact that the higher education grant is to be reduced by 334 Euro from January (even though some students in other colleges haven’t even received this year’s first installment yet and may have to withdraw)? At the same time, FAS, in spite of their recent track record, is allocated 56 million Euro to run more short-term courses. And not a mention of any re-introduction of fees on a means tested basis! I despair!!

  3. I take the point (made by both Vincent and Ros) that we also need to look more closely at the perspective of the student, in terms of grants and various benefits. My initial comments were really solely about the Book of Estimates and how public expenditure was being voted across Departments. There’s clearly more to be said.

  4. Vincent Says:

    I suspect most agree that some form of Fees will be introduced, but the question is where on the earnings scale.
    Further, this child allowance, why the heck not remove it completely except for those on welfare, who have to go to their CWO.
    However, forgive me for yet again not fully engaging with your post.
    But what I want from the Education system.
    I want Plumbers who are recognised as being THE BEST in the world, who can demand remuneration as such. Where what they can do with lead, copper and hi-tech plastics is seen by their fellow plumbers overseas as an Art.
    I want, when an Irish person enters a company or Corporation that it means that the game is lifted. This to the point where a Cleaner gets an education in the products used, that a Chemist gets elsewhere.
    If they are Pilots then an ability to out-fly the current best of the best.
    Basically, that a 2:2 is a 1:1 in anyone else’s money.
    Nor would it be any harm if the keystone of mathematical or philosophical thought was Irish, again. And not to be bothering over much progressive Greek Columns of the Flavian Amphitheatre or that Oxford College. We do have profound stonework of our own.

    • Perry Share Says:

      Vincent, I reckon that’s the least you should expect!

      • Vincent Says:

        Least, Perry. Well yes, but I had the idea that I was one of the few ‘if only we gave up the drink, we could take over the World’, types.
        Which let’s face it, given the bloody-minded twist in the make-up of the average Irish person. Now that the Duty is reduced it is a very real possibility. If the stuff was free, we would throw up our hands and build a fricking bridge with a tilt all the way to France.

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