Irish university funding: the continuing uncertainty

Yesterday in the Dáil (Irish Parliament), the Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairi Quinn TD, refused to rule out the return of tuition fees. though clearly showing some level of discomfort at the prospect. However, according to a report in the Irish Times the more likely development will be a continuing year-on-year increase in what is now called the ‘student contribution charge’, perhaps to €2,500 in the coming year. All of this is in the context of a major student protest in Dublin yesterday, and the submission earlier this week of a report by the Higher Education Authority to the government on university funding.

It is clear that the Minister has a difficult task – though admittedly one made more difficult by his signing of a USI-organised pre-election pledge not to reintroduce tuition fees (which I argued at the time was not a good move). The problem is that the Irish taxpayer cannot afford to fund universities properly at the current time, but the political establishment does not want fees. In reality of course the ‘contribution charge’ is now a fee, albeit an inadequate one for resourcing purposes.

In all of this there is a risk of policy drift. Right now it is not clear what the government, or for that matter anyone else, wants to achieve in higher education funding. There is no clear strategy and therefore a large amount of confusion as to what will happen next. In the meantime the global standing of the Irish institutions is eroding, which in turn may damage economic regeneration. It seems to me therefore that the key requirement right now is to produce a clarity of purpose. Uncertainty is the biggest risk of all.

Explore posts in the same categories: higher education

Tags: , , ,

You can comment below, or link to this permanent URL from your own site.

8 Comments on “Irish university funding: the continuing uncertainty”

  1. Vincent Says:

    While the tax code hasn’t been revised the return of fees is utterly meaningless. We’ll be back to the old situation where the tax foregone will exceed moneys from fees.
    Did you read on the utter insanity where Quinn in his last incarnation in Office handed the private schools a windfall and also allowed directed tax management towards the school where you have your kids.
    Surely there has to be a way within the Constitution to prevent such blatant discrimination when Traveler kids go without any schooling at all.

  2. Ernie Ball Says:

    There is no level below which the quality of education must not sink, in the students’ view. They wouldn’t care if the ratio of students to staff went to a hundred to one. Indeed, they’d probably be happiest if we eliminated the bothersome teaching altogether while keeping the facilities, turning the universities into summer camps, provided we made sure to print out and distribute the meaningless parchments. University is a three or four year subsidised party as far as most are concerned. They haven’t yet twigged that the party is over.


  3. Of course there is the other option of making education cheaper. Firstly, stop providing hidden subsidies to post-graduate courses and research from under-graduate courses, and secondly use more efficient teaching methods. To say that this cannot be done operationally shows some lack of imagination. To say that it cannot be done politically is a different discussion.

    • Ernie Ball Says:

      I’d like to accept your assurance that “efficiencies” are possible with no loss in the quality of the learning experience. The problem, though, is you have no idea whether such “efficiencies” are possible. You simply assume they are.

      Thanks, but if it comes down to overthrowing proven ways of teaching and learning for what may be a pig in a poke, I’ll pass, no matter how confident you are that I’m wrong. “Efficiency,” everywhere I’ve seen it trumpeted, always involves less contact between lecturer and student. That may be fine for mere training but for anything the slightest bit conceptual (i.e. interesting), it’s a disaster.


      • @Ernie How do you know that I have no idea of whether such efficiencies are possible? Perhaps I have tested a number of ideas and found that they have worked? Why not allow people to try out their whacky ideas that you are so sceptical about? What are these conceptual skills that you believe cannot be taught any more efficiently that we do at the moment? Could they be the ‘critical thinking’ skills that recent research showed no improvement in 45% of students undertaking 4-year degrees in the US?

        • Ernie Ball Says:

          Let me put it another way: even if you have an idea about whether such “efficiencies” (whatever they may be) are possible, I don’t trust you. Indeed, to paraphrase Goebbels, when I hear the word “efficiencies,” I reach for my gun. “Efficiencies” is code for oversight by moronic bureaucrats who don’t have two brain cells to rub together.

          You’ve “tested ideas” and found that they “worked” in what discipline? What is your definition of “worked”? What is your definition of “efficiency” for that matter?

          And let’s hear your bright ideas about how these efficiencies can be achieved. Don’t hold back now: your nation needs you.

          I could institute a great deal of “efficiency” tomorrow by simply decreeing that tutorials be abolished in all subjects but at the cost of radically worsening the learning experience. I could improve even on that level of “efficiency” by abolishing lectures too and turning everything into podcasts. And once I did that, the only lesson the students would learn would be that knowledge is utterly atomised, that we are each on our own and that, ultimately, there is nothing worth learning and nothing anyone can teach anybody. For the very idea of “efficiency” is of a piece with the students’ own ideology that says “get the maximum (grades) for the minimum (effort); nothing else matters.”

          As for the research that you’re alluding to (the book Academically Adrift), there is nothing in that book that indicates that “outdated” teaching methods are in any way to blame. Indeed, it has nothing to say about “efficiencies.” There is, by contrast, ample evidence in it that changes in university student cultures have quite a lot to do with the problem you refer to, in particular the shocking reductions in study time (there’s your “efficiency” in action):

          While prior historical scholarship reminds us that U.S. undergraduates have long been devoted to pursuing social interests at college, there is emerging empirical evidence that suggests that college students’ academic effort has dramatically declined in recent decades. Labor economists Philip Babcock and Mindy Marks, for example . . . have found that full-time college students through the early 1960s spent roughly forty hours per week on academic pursuits (i.e., combining study and class time); at which point a steady decline ensued throughout the following decades. Today, full-time college students on average report spending only twenty-seven hours per week on academic activities–that is, less time than a typical high school student spends at school. Average time studying fell from twenty-five hours per week in 1961 to twenty hours per week in 1981 and thirteen hours per week in 2003. Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses (Chicago: U of Chicago Press, 2011), kindle locations 146-7.

          And there is every reason to believe that the main culprit there is the democratisation of the university. The insistence that a university education is a prerequisite for any kind of job, even those that in no way require a university education, has resulted in a student body a significant fraction of which (maybe the same 45%?) have no business being in a university, no inclination to engage in university-level work and no interest in anything other than getting a seal of approval marked “employable” stamped across their foreheads at the absolute minimum expenditure of both effort (which interferes with the partying) and money. It is no wonder in such a situation that students fail to learn. On this, see the book The Five-Year Party.

          In short, before you go prescribing draconian cures for what ails us, make sure you know what the disease is. It ain’t “inefficiency.”

        • Ernie Ball Says:

          Just to amend that last comment: inefficiency is a problem, but not where one might think. What is inefficient in our universities are the increasingly bloated administrative and managerial ranks. These people use up resources, sometimes resources that they are not authorised to use, that could be devoted to the primary missions of the university: teaching and research. In the last 10 years, Irish universities (but not only Irish ones) have seen a massive swell in the numbers of administrators. If all these people were made redundant tomorrow, most of what happens in the classrooms and offices and labs could continue as it did before. You want efficiency? Cut off the parasites.


  4. @ernie When you hear the word ‘efficieny’ do you reach for your gun in order to get rid of the parasitic administrators?

    I am a little confused. You do seem to refer to two different meanings of the word, the first “oversight by moronic bureaucrats”, which I was not familiar with but agree that its not a good thing, and the second, the removal of activities that do not seem to add any value, as in un-necessary administrators, which again seems to be a good idea. In case there is any doubt the second one is more in line with what I am thinking about – not doing things that need to be done, and doing the things that need to be done with less overall effort in order to have the same impact.

    Your reading of “Academically Adrift” might even provide clues as to how we are not doing things properly. Is the change in student attitudes because we have, as you have bravely suggested, democratised education, or is it that having let all those people in, we academics have failed to uphold the previous standards which would require them to put in the work or fail their courses.

    You ask me not to fail my country and say how improvements can be made. I hope I have been doing that for some years now, but it has been mostly in Engineering and Science and, as you say, this may not be “interesting”. So we might start by listing the domains studied in higher education and splitting them down into the “uninteresting” ones (where you suggest we might make some efficiency gains) and the “interesting” ones (where you have your doubts). If we estimate the costs in those uninteresting ones (Engineering, Science, Medicine -you know, the expensive ones) we may be able to agree that we could at least make savings there and take that as read. Then we can move on to the interesting ones. Just let me know what you think these interesting topics and we’ll get stuck in.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: