The message from the third level: this can’t go on

I am going to say some critical things about the government in a moment, but I want to temper that and put it in context first. The story of higher education in Ireland over the past 15 years or so is not an altogether bad one. Universities today are much better placed to succeed in a global setting than they would have been then. Research funding in particular has transformed our prospects and has been largely responsible for the rise of Irish universities in global rankings. Higher education institutions now reflect to a much greater extent than they used to the composition of this country’s population. Many of the decisions taken by governments over the past decade or two have been genuinely excellent.

The one decision which was, in my opinion, an outright catastrophe was the decision to abolish tuition fees, and nearly all of our current problems stem in one way or another from that. I should stress that I believe this decision was taken for entirely laudable reasons; but it was dramatically wrong. The two main results of the decision were (a) that as the exchequer simply could not carry the burden of funding all tuition costs, funding per student declined substantially in real terms, to the point that it is now not much over half of what it was in 1995; and (b) that this ushered in a period of significant neglect of disadvantaged students, as scarce money was handed out to wealthier families. In addition, the mistake became almost impossible to remedy for political reasons: if you give the middle classes a present, don’t attempt to take it back unless you are prepared to live with their anger at the polls.

The position we are in now is that higher education is seriously under-funded. Irish universities and colleges are being asked to accept major funding reductions, but at the same time are being asked to take in more students and be beacons in Ireland’s drive to be a successful knowledge economy and society. The suggestion we are being asked to accept is that the institutions are not actually under-funded at all, that there are inefficiencies that must still be eliminated, and that there are weaknesses in financial management and control.

The universities in turn are making a case for a very different approach to funding, but are not necessarily making it effectively. There are few signs that politicians are changing their minds a a result, or that the universities have been able to strike a chord with the public. As a result, nobody bats an eyelid at the idea that funding can be reduced more while student numbers increase substantially, and while the government commits itself not to allow the one measure which could actually produce some improvement.

This really cannot go on. Unless there is a change of policy, I cannot see how the universities and colleges can responsibly add to their student numbers. It seems to me to be logical that numbers should now be capped at present levels, or even lowered, until a better funding arrangement can be agreed. To do anything else would be irresponsible, as the pressure of any additional numbers of largely unfunded students could have a serious negative impact on quality. In any case, I feel that we need to develop much greater clarity around the appropriate higher education participation targets and how these targets fit with a wider vision for Irish society.

I am pleased to see that the Hunt report is grasping this nettle. But as a country we do not have an excellent record of implementing such reports, and we don’t seem to be able to understand or accept that there really is a crisis here, and that its impact will not just affect university staff, but everyone who wants an Irish higher education institution to deliver a quality education for them or their families.

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10 Comments on “The message from the third level: this can’t go on”

  1. Vincent Says:

    When I hear them talking about a logistical rather than a strategic or tactical report I will be far happier.

  2. Ian Power Says:

    Something has to give. Bring back tuition fees @ a flat €5k per student per year generating roughly €1bn per annum; doubling HE funding overnight. Even I’m getting sick of the posturing with no real solutions. Enough is enough.

    Every student should be guaranteed a tuition loan from BOI/AIB with repayments beginning one year after graduation. None of this “Med Student Only” craic.

    €5k to include all charges (reg fee, conferring charges etc.)

  3. I’ve differed with you so many times on fees but here I go again.

    The argument that we should not be financing the education of the rich (“scarce money was handed out to wealthier families”) at the expense of the poor (“significant neglect of disadvantaged students”) is certainly attractive. It can sound quite progressive too: “if you give the middle classes a present, don’t attempt to take it back”.

    The initial flaw is that there is no link between the reintroduction of fees and taking action on educational disadvantage. Poverty is more complex than that and getting kids from deprived families up to university entrance standard and ambitious to go there requires a level of commitment and spending that has never been seriously discussed.

    Now, giving the “middle classes” and the “wealthy” a lash is all well and good. The problem is that these categories have no agreed meaning. Someone earning 100k or even 150k plus is certainly wealthy but many would not agree and would regard such people as middle income. Moreover, even if 100k+ whining is ignored and such families are required to pay fees, the amount raised will be small. If the reintroduction of fees is to raise significant income, virtually all students will have to pay full fees.

    To characterise the people who would pay as an irate middle class ready to take revenge come election time is a parody. People on salaries between, say, 30k and 70k may like to describe themselves as middle class but they would be very sorely affected by the payment of fees. The Breathnach initiative liberated many families from years of struggle.

    Yet again,

    and even,

    • kevin denny Says:

      Colum, yet again… the lack of an agreed definition of mddle class/wealthy is a complete red herring. Middle class/wealthy people pay higher rates of income tax (in general) and do not have entitlements to certain social services. I don’t see the Revenue bogged down in sociological angst over this. In other words, to implement such a system the government has to make decisions about cut-offs and entitlements. Fortunetly governments including our own, do this all the time so its not so hard. In terms of university access, the key distinction is between the children of manual and non-manual workers. Of course there are exceptions to this rule and you could not base a policy literally on this distinction but you could pick an income threshold that is close enough. In fact we already have one: the criterion for entitlement to the Higher Education grant is based on family income. Problem solved.
      Re-introducing fees will not by itself improve access for low SES groups: the important point is that it will not harm it: thats what the evidence shows. On the plus side, it will help universities to do what is expected of them, something they cannot hope to do at present.
      Niamh Breathnach’s initiative did not liberate many families from years of struggle: it apparently helped one taxi-driver but there is no evidence otherwise. Actually there is clear evidence to the contrary. So what we have is a relatively select group of people getting a highly beneficial investment for free when they could afford to pay for it- we know this because they used to pay in the past. The present system of higher education funding is a big exercise in social enginerring designed to benefit the middle class: fostering social inequality. For reasons I don’t understand, many of the “right on” types who are so vocal about inequality are notably silent on this.
      You are quite correct that the causes of educational inequality are complex and deep seated. To address this, we need to see why low SES kids do crap in school compared to middle class kids – another factor that our inequality guardians are noticeably silent about. Fees won’t change this. We have several problems to deal with (unequal access, university financing) and hence we need to coordinate several instruments to tacke them.

      • Kevin,
        If someone argues using terms like “middle class” and “wealthy”, it is sensible to question the argument on the basis that the terms are not defined or have become debased in common speech.

        Of course there is no administrative difficulty in deciding who will pay and who will not.

        My point is that saying that the present system favours only the “wealthy” at the expense of the poor is simply untrue. It muddies the debate over fees by prompting people to think that there’s an easy the-rich-will-pay solution and it ignores the reality of familes who ARE struggling and who WERE liberated by “free fees”.

        Niamh B’s anecdote attracted derision and no thought. There are many, many such anecdotes. Think about a family on, say, 30-70k with kids of college age being asked to pay fees. By all means argue that fees will have to be paid but please stop the nonsense that few will suffer.

  4. Barra Says:


    There has been an absolute failure of the University hierarchy to engage with students on the issue of fees etc. I know as someone heavily involved in the campaign against reintroduction of fees that one of the reasons most of us oppose them is that we don’t see the resources going to undergrad education – its all directed towards research and post-grad. Lecturer’s don’t seem to have much time for undergrads (with some notable exceptions) and tutorials are taught by uninterested doctoral or masters students as a way of financing them. Any benefit from the rise in the rankings you praise isn’t seen by most undergrads – we don’t get to talk to those lecturers.

    Engage with students and you might find that the debate is a bit more nuanced than the middle classes defending their “present”.

  5. Rabelais Says:

    I broadly agree with Colm McCafferty but I would add, that from my experience, fees in the UK have had a dreadful impact upon students’ experience of higher education. Many are forced to work to pay their way through university and as a consequence studies routinely compete with the demands of employers, who are not always terribly sympathetic to their student staff.

    Also many students choose to live at home to avoid the extra expense of accommodation. The consequences of this are that campus dies as places of social interaction; classes schedule on Monday mornings and anytime on a Friday occupy the ‘graveyard shift’ because of the student exodus for home. Also contrary to all stated ambitions, that higher education should develop young, enterprising adults, what fees actually foster is a culture of student dependency upon parents.

    Finally, fees mean that students stop behaving like students and behave more like consumers – two modes of subjectivity that I just can’t quite reconcile… but that’s another whole can of worms…

    If Ireland or the UK seriously believes that their respective national economies depend upon a large pool of graduate labour then government should pay for (or rather invest in) students.

    Ferdinand, your comments are interesting because they offer an insight into the thinking of people in the upper echelons of university management, where, not unreasonably perhaps, the priority is to balance budgets, but from the perspective of one at the coal face, working daily with my students, fees are a sickening hindrance to the processes of education.

  6. Al Says:


    One could argue that by becoming dependant on the state for funding per student, etc the Universities leadership have lost the ability to maintain independence in their decision making.

    Now the trade off has been good, buildings have been built and posts filled but the trade off there is that funding also becomes dependent on political rationality.

    That institutions that teach best practise on accounting, management, economics and leadership should have to bow to political and factional whims show how wrong the situation has become.

    But this problem was created long before the fees situation we face at present?

  7. Mark Dowling Says:

    What level of responsibility do the Universities have for accepting unfunded expansion mandates from government?

    If a client tells a contractor I want job X done for Y money, the contractor knows a proper job requires Y+Z to get it done, is the answer to gouge the contractor’s employees and suppliers to make up the difference, or for the contractor to say, “sorry guv, no can do”?

    “€5k to include all charges (reg fee, conferring charges etc.)”

    I wonder how many future alumni donations have been jeopardised by that stupid 50 euro charge at UCC. Talk about a slap in the face on the way out the door.

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