Irish higher education: facing a difficult future
In a welcome spirit of openness, the Irish Department of Education and Skills has published the briefing that it gave to the new Minister, Ruairi Quinn TD. The document sets out a fairly detailed summary of current issues facing the Irish education system, as well as some of the steps that are being taken or planned by the government. A particularly interesting passage addresses the funding problems, as follows.
‘In the current economic climate it will be a matter for the institutions to manage their resources in 2011 and where necessary to effect economies across all levels of activity. In that regard, the HEA is working closely with the institutions, via a steering group, to identify ways of cutting costs. Significant savings have already been identified through the introduction of shared services and collaborative procurement. Notwithstanding this, it is recognised that funding cutbacks are being imposed on already reduced budgets and will necessitate further difficult spending choices at the level of individual institutions such as restricted modular choices for students, impact on tutorial and library services and erosion of the staff-student ratio.’
The document also refers to ‘the use of part-time and flexible options, open and distance learning etc’. It concludes:
‘There is a strong commitment across the higher education sector to accommodate current increased demand by increasing the number of places they offer, to prioritise the maintenance of core teaching and learning activities and to ensure that maximum value is achieved from existing resources.’
The picture painted for the Minister in this briefing is a bleak one, and it may give a slightly benign view of the mood in the sector as it is attempts to accommodate the financial pressures. On the other hand the writer is correctly stating the willingness of universities and colleges to play their part. What may need to be added, however, is that this scenario, however much it describes the inescapable problems and inevitable steps to correct them, is not sustainable, and will not allow a more vibrant future system to re-emerge. It is to be hoped that plans being considered by the new government take this into account.