Securing the future of Irish higher education

Irish higher education, the engine that drove the Irish economy forward in recent decades by providing skilled graduates for the major investments by ICT companies in the 1990s and by acting as magnet for knowledge-intensive investment and start-ups over the past ten years or, so continues to face major problems. By common consent – and this includes the view of the Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairi Quinn TD – it is seriously under-funded and cannot realistically perform the tasks set for it. It has been buffeted by public criticism of the quality of its graduates. It has been told that it now faces an era of much heavier regulation.

Over recent years the university presidents have called for the reintroduction of tuition fees in order to off-set reductions in public funding and in order to protect the universities’ ability to compete internationally and maintain high levels of quality.  This call for tuition fees has been accompanied by the proposal that they should be made affordable through the provision of student loans. However, doubts have arisen – prompted in part by the controversial higher education reforms in England – whether students will be able to carry debts of this magnitude and whether in consequence there is a likelihood of significant default or non-repayment of loans.

Now the Minister has announced that, whatever funding framework may be found, it will not involve student loans. He is right to decide the issue in this way. Student loans excessively delay the provision of funds and create a major uncertainty as to the amounts likely to be raised. They also obscure the more urgent need of redirecting some of the fee income (if there are fees) to socio-economically disadvantaged students to ensure that they are not discouraged from entering higher education.

However, given the consensus on the inadequacy of current funding levels, it is now urgent that a resourcing plan for higher education is finalised and announced. The current financial uncertainty is undermining the capacity of the sector to support Irish economic recovery.

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10 Comments on “Securing the future of Irish higher education”

  1. John Gallagher Says:

    I am a student finishing my masters in the next couple of weeks but from what I have been led to believe is that the introduction of fees would not serve the purpose which the universities desire “maintain high levels of quality”. This is due to the fact that the upper class will always have the money to put their progeny through university, while the lower class will still be able to avail of the grants to put their offspring through the same education system. It would seem to me that the middle class will be the ones caught by this introduction of fees. I believe that this issue would need to be addressed because from my perspective the current plan would put a large burden on either the family who choose to invest in their son/daughters education or the student themselves who take out the loan, which is a terrible burden to bear.

    The major problem in my mind is not the countries current education system, I believe the quality of graduates is at a high level but I am frustrated by the prospect of graduating from a highly regarded MSc degree with a high grade only to find there is no job for me. I know that may be the case in a great deal of countries, but there are still many science jobs available abroad in countries with similar economic difficulties and this country will not benefit from producing skilled workers who emigrate for work.

  2. Dan Says:

    I agree that the system is underfunded, however do you really believe that extra funds (or even a lack of more cuts) will filter down to where they are needed? In my opinion the key elements to improve the quality of our students, and hence the overall system, are tutorials and teaching IT skills to all disciplines – both of these have suffered from cutbacks of recent years.

    If the universities are handed a source of stable funding I can see it being invested in campus accommodation and infrastructure such as car parks, marketing to foreign students and “rockstar” lecturers. These may be beneficial in the long-term but will do nothing to improve our graduates over the next 5 years.

  3. Al Says:

    I cant agree but that this move secures the future of Irish higher education, but I cant say that I am anti student fee either.
    What this does is allow the Irish higher education model to remain more or less the same by introducing a more honest and increased cost to the students.
    This will change the landscape and probably decrease student numbers, which the Hunt report stating the opposite will happen.

    So it will be interesting to see what actually happens
    Besides the obvious not affecting the rich, poor getting grants, and a wide band of middle class people taking the full brunt.
    And they may come to view Irish higher level education as overpriced, undelivering and seek to send their youth abroad?

    Interesting times…

  4. I presume that in the meantime as he is struggling to get the extra 500 million euro, he will be asking higher education to make better use of the €1.3bn he is already giving them. What if they became so efficcient that they did not need the extra €500m.

  5. Jilly Says:

    Without necessarily making a case (in itself) for fees, wouldn’t the answer to the ‘squeezed middle-class’ be to have a sliding scale of fees paid according to family income, up to and including no fees for students from the poorest families?

    • Vincent Says:

      I thought that, but now I don’t think so. You see I believe that companies and businesses will factor in an expectation. Put it this way, when I hear some fellow on the TV telling the country that he has to put aside the cost of his kids education I start shouting at the telly. In why should I feel sympathy for him sending his sprogs to Blackrock.
      But if you think how Harvard and the Ivy league works things with their nose bleed high fees regardless of income, but then mitigated them in a private deal between the student and the university. Then no one knows exactly what the student has paid for the course.
      Another issue with any other method is that it allows the company to get well trained employees on the cheap. And coupled to that, allows them to require levels of educational investment that have no connection to what they really require.
      And why not have the Grad act as a method of taxation on the company through his income. They are not paying tax at any realistic level elsewhere.

  6. EduardDuCourseau Says:

    I’m still quite undecided on this issue. On the one hand, it seems as if universities will survive no matter how little money they are able to operate on. Witness France, Italy or Ireland where the unit of resource per student has been declining steadily for years, or even in Australia/GB where increases in class sizes have accompanied the overall expansion of numbers and higher fees.

    In fact, regardless of how underfunded a system is, good students continue to learn and others have fun on campus and don’t care that the lecture is overcrowded as they are unlikely to attend it anyway. It seems as if an awful lot of the wingeing from Vice-Chancellors falls on deaf ears, precisely because there is a strong view held amongst government, business and the community that universities don’t really need extra money and that any any extra dosh would only be spent on fripperies such as sevice helicopters for Vice-Chancellors to visit satellite campuses (this example is true).

    So is the public really convinced that charging higher fees will improve the student’s educational experience? Not really. This is why there is so much scepticism about increases in fees and increases in taxpayer-funded resource allocations to universities.

    On the other hand, the whole idea of carrying debt is quite repugnant, as Ferdo says. My view is that the system has expanded beyond the capacity of the taxpayer to fund it.

    How about providing a hybrid system with a numerus clausus of fully funded places backed up with full fee places for additional applicants? The funded places would go to those who earned the most points and those who didn’t do so well would just have to pay.

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