Sustainable universities

Whatever we may think of university league tables, the evidence from the latest league table – yesterday’s announcement of the QS world rankings – does put one fact into clear relief: that unless we understand that our universities are now seriously under-resourced, and equally critically, under-staffed,  we must expect to see a further serious erosion in Ireland’s standing as a knowledge society. In fact, in the light of the report from the OECD that was also released this week, we know that there is a serious issue with the funding of Ireland’s education system overall, and that this was the case even at the height of the economic boom.

It would be easy to blame the government, or maybe successive governments, for all this, but that would be wrong. In fact, I am inclined to believe that in some way all governments have tried their best to raise the profile of higher education. Furthermore, there have been successes and some good progress, not least through the development of serious research funding from the later 1990s. But as a country we have failed to fund teaching properly, increasing student numbers dramatically while consistently reducing the funding per student. This is not just a government failing, as it has become fairly clear that as a country we are unwilling to pay more tax for this (and in any case, there is no guarantee that any additional tax will be allocated to higher  education or that any such allocation would be secure in times of crisis), and we are also unwilling to have tuition fees. We want our higher education system to be the best in the world, but we want someone else to pay for it. Politicians are merely responding to that and failing to square this circle. I seriously doubt that another government would do this any better.

This has been going on for some time, and it has reached a point where, in 2010, on average the money received per student from government (the sum of the fee paid by the government and each student’s share of the recurrent grant) is about €1,400 less than the cost of a reasonable quality education. Faced with this situation, universities can either adjust their programmes to fit the reduced revenue (meaning that they will offer lower quality education) or go into deficit, without any realistic hope of recovering that deficit any time in the future. The impact of all this was very clearly set out by TCD’s Provost, Dr John Hegarty, in yesterday’s ‘Morning Ireland’ programme on RTE radio.

In the meantime, the government’s ’employment control framework’, under which universities have had to reduced staffing by 6 per cent between December 2008 and December 2010, is seriously affecting the student-staff ratios, which are a important factor in global rankings.

None of this is inevitable, though we are very close to it being irreversible in the near future. But we must start by facing up to the fact that what we are doing now is going one way only: towards increasingly speedy decline. But we have the people, the ingenuity, the capacity for innovation, and the passion for learning that can make it all work. Indeed against all the odds we have managed to hold on to reasonable levels of quality, though increasingly by applying sticking plaster and window putty. But it could all work. All we need is a more realistic approach to resourcing. That’s all we need. Really.

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5 Comments on “Sustainable universities”

  1. Vincent Says:

    As with many things in Ireland it is impossible to measure in a way that is honest. And perhaps more importantly, agreed.
    If I might ask a few questions. If you, the Universities, had as much money as say Princeton/Yale or Harvard would you a) be higher up that table and b)have more and primary access to research cash, not crumb.
    And while I do think the Irish Uni’s should be far nearer each other and it being ridiculous that UCC is higher than UCG at anything. In honesty,it’s a bit of a demographic miracle that any of the Irish are in the first 100. It’s a Tax base kind of thing. Further should the EU have its way on the corpo tax your jam and cream will be a whole hell of a lot thinner that at the moment.

  2. Al Says:

    Would the Uni’s face the charge that it is mostly their own fault for the current situation.
    By choosing the public purse as a ‘safe’ funding option they are now welfare dependant.

    Why not value the total capital assets of each Uni and get a long term mortgage of an appropiate percentage of the total and then go out on their own.
    All agree to charge fees and pay their own way.
    It may sound risky but with independence comes liberty!

    • Vincent Says:

      or a different form of tyrany

      • Al Says:

        The burden of self governance….

        • Vincent Says:

          is avoiding ending up like Liberia or Sierra Leone FULL STOP

          The end game to Ferdinand’s idea on this is very dangerous. Simply because the politics in a Uni are extremely polarised. Remember the State paid 2nd level was forced as was 3dr level.
          In the past while cash in of itself wasn’t king. Knowledge of it was most certainly king.
          And this is going on even today where the CoCo are making FF,FM extremely difficult. For those of us that hold one of the Degrees from the Irish Universities with such funding, I am loath to do anything to pull up a drawbridge. And given my natural Native instinct on anything with a drawbridge is to pound it out of existence one way or another.
          Any hoos, did any understand the implication of papyrus found in a Tipperary bog stuck to a late 7th early 8th manuscript.

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