The scary future of Irish higher education

I suspect that most Irish university presidents are not having a good time right now. About a week ago we all received the annual funding letter from the Higher Education Authority, and this will have alerted us to what we already knew: that for 2010 we will have significantly less money from the state than we did in 2009, which in turn had seen a significant reduction compared with 2008. In fact, looking back now on my almost 10 years as President of DCU, the funding from the state for each student, after allowing for inflation, will have fallen by almost 50 per cent over that period.

In 2010 there are some things that compensate, though only a little: we are having to reduce staff numbers under public service rules, and this is resulting on lower salary costs (but big pressures on our teaching); and of course those staff still in place will also have had their pay lowered. But it is still a scary reduction in resources that will create a significant crisis across the sector. That, too, might be bearable if we could see this as a temporary phenomenon, and if we could be confident that from, say, 2012 serious funding increases might be in prospect, not just returning us to 2008 levels but actually producing a real increase beyond that to make us internationally competitive. But we know that’s not going to happen. The reality dawning on us now is that as far as public funding is concerned we will not, at least for the foreseeable future, be able to return to what it was two or three years ago, and a serious leap beyond that is beyond even our fantasies.

The problem for us is that, probably, nobody with power or influence thinks this represents a serious problem. Just yesterday a well educated graduate of another Dublin university now in a well paid job told me that the Irish universities had got above themselves, had become fixated on global rankings and had embarked upon research projects that we should never have wanted and which were beyond the capacity or needs of this country. He also said that he believed we were inefficient and would be well able to absorb cuts. The horrific truth is that his views are probably quite representative of those held by many others. But what he and others do not realise is that our high value research programmes have attracted new foreign investment into Ireland, and have brought leading world experts into our universities where, amongst other things, they can (and certainly should) add to the student learning experience through their teaching. And they do not seem to see that the quality of our degree programmes has been sustained by staff numbers that allow us to undertake at least some small group teaching and to provide effective student support.

Now as we look to the next year or so, probably all Irish universities will have to cut what would long have been regarded as essential supports for our teaching, increase class sizes with fewer staff to teach them, reduce library acquisitions (including basic books and journals), stop essential repairs and maintenance, and stop the renewal or replacement of out-of-date equipment. Even some of these measures will only bring temporary relief, and by 2012, if there is no significant funding increase, Irish higher education will not be able to continue the old framework of degree programmes.

There is no point shouting at the government to give us more money: they don’t have it. So we need to have a whole new understanding of how we should be resourced. If the current refusal to face up to the issues continues, then universities will need to see education as only part of the core mission, and they will need to commercialise aggressively in order to open up other revenues. A medium term target would have to be to raise some 40 per cent of our income from commercial activities (not including the commercialisation of research, which will need to be pursued separately). Or else we need to accept that there is no way out unless we have tuition fees or some other framework for student contributions. Jim Browne, the President of NUI Galway, is right when he told the Irish Times yesterday that without tuition fees higher education will face an inevitable decline.

Right now we are in a very difficult position, but it is not an impossible one. But those who determine education policy need to wake up and accept there is a crisis. They need to stop pretending that everything could be solved if only universities were more efficient with their money. They need to be courageous and do what needs to be done. Or else they should be honest and say that as a country we don’t have the will or the means to address our educational decline; and then prepare the people for a return to a frugal agrarian economy and mass emigration.

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5 Comments on “The scary future of Irish higher education”

  1. kevin denny Says:

    Its a depressing scenario. The politicians can’t/won’t give more taxpayers money [understandably enough] yet they don’t want to see a decline in the sector: a rock and a hard place. Is there any merit in the sector persuading the policy makers to cut higher education loose? By that I mean, the government provides some core funding in return for some core service provision and then its up to the universities themselves. Any extras they have to fund themeslves whether through fees, grant income or otherwise. This model is used in many forms of local government finance, its called “fiscal equalization”.
    The advantage to the government is that they can distance themselves from decisions about hiring, tuition costs etc. Effectively, they mind their own business. The advantage to the universities is they can get on with the job. People will think harder about how they spend their money on education and universities might also think harder about some of their more dubious expenditures.
    Its not an easy solution [particularly in a small country] but then there aren’t any of those: there would be an inevitable furore over “creeping privatisation”, “neo-liberal ideology” blahdy blah. But it might work. It certainly beats the regression to mediocrity that seems to be the alternative.

  2. Ros Says:

    Until those who determine education policy actually sit down with the heads of the universities and engage in meaningful dialogue there is little hope of any progress being made in determining an equitable future for the sector. What are they afraid of? On paper, fiscal equalization does have some merits, but I’m not sure we have the political will at present to undertake that measure.

    • Perry Share Says:

      I have heard on the grapevine that the Hunt report is not now due until May. Is this the case? The failure to get on with it and at least put it out there is having a severe freezing effect on discussions about the future of HE. Or are there backroom deals being done in the interim? Is it cynicism or incompetence?

      • Ros Says:

        Perhaps quite a good helping of all three, Perry?

      • Perry, the current position as I understand it is that the report is nearly complete but will shortly go out to consultation within government, civil service etc, and will then possibly be amended/edited. The best guess as to its general release – assuming the government decides to do that, which is not absolutely certain, I suspect – would probably be some time late April or May.

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