Posted tagged ‘Budget 2009’

Is it the end of the road for the Irish Universities Quality Board?

October 23, 2008

As I mentioned last week, the Irish Budget and Book of Estimates published on October 14 included, more or less in passing, a commitment by the Government to transfer the functions of the Irish Universities Quality Board (IUQB) to a new state agency to be formed from a merger of three existing ones. I confess that I am deeply uneasy about this move, for a number of reasons.

1. There was no consultation or even advance warning that this step was to be taken. Such a step – and as I shall explain in a moment, it is a major step – should not be taken without proper analysis and discussion.

2. The three existing bodies that are to be merged (and then have the IUQB functions added) are the Higher Education and Training Awards Council (HETAC), the Further Education and Training Awards Council (FETAC), and the National Qualifications Authority of Ireland (NQAI). These bodies, while significant, have no formal role in relation to universities, and it is doubtful whether min merged form they are an appropriate entity to supervise quality assurance for the university sector.

3. The IUQB, while it has its imperfections, has performed its role well on the whole, and is aware of what it needs to do to improve further. More importantly, it (and the processes it coordinates) has the confidence of the wider academic community.

4. It may be feared that what is brewing here is a move towards a higher education quality ‘inspectorate’, which would be a very wrong approach to quality assurance and improvement in Ireland.

But the chief concern is that the Government is adopting a heavy-handed approach to the universities, and appears to be eager to demonstrate that it does not trust them and is not prepared to work with them. This, if it is true, is serious, and will need to be corrected, no doubt by an effort on both sides. On the Government side, one step in the right direction would be to stop publishing new decisions and initiatives in the media and press statements which have not been the subject of any prior discussion with the universities.

For the universities, it may be important to recognise that we do not appear to have the confidence of this key stakeholder; we will need to work constructively on a policy of engagement that helps us to overcome that.

Assessing the Budget and Estimates

October 17, 2008

Now that the details of the Budget and the Book of Estimates have become clearer, it is possible to say that, on the whole, it could have been worse. Even after all details have been accounted for, higher education will still have been treated less generously than primary or secondary, but that is often the case at times of pressure on public finances. It now appears that the revenues generated from the increased student registration charge will be available to the universities and colleges. This will mean that, overall, the aggregate income between fees, recurrent grant and registration charge will leave the universities with more or less the same income from the State as last year – which, however, means a cut in real terms of over 6 per cent.

There is, as I have noted previously, a fairly generous increase in capital spending, but for the moment I do not know what it is for, and I suspect a lot of it is for building projects already authorised. I also understand that PRTLI Cycle 5 will be announced shortly, although expenditure under it will not be possible for over a year.

The one item about which I confess I am disturbed is the decision to compel the Irish Universities Quality Board (IUQB) to transfer its business to a new State agency created from a merger of three existing ones – HETAC, FETAC and the NQAI. I believe that this move is a mistake, and could lead to an unacceptable bureaucratisation of quality assurance. But I suppose I should withhold judgement until I know more in the way of detail about these plans.

The year ahead – or more likely, the years ahead – will be tricky for universities, and it will be hard to innovate. But we shall address the situation positively in DCU.

Budget and Estimates woes?

October 14, 2008

It is probably better to comment in more detail on today’s announcement of the Budget for 2009 and the Book of Estimates after I have had an opportunity to study the fine print a little more. As far as I can see from the announcement by the Minister for Finance and the accompanying documentation, third level education has been hit in a number of ways – but we must await a more detailed explanation of some of the elements before we can offer a balanced assessment. The Education and Science vote as a whole did not fare too badly, with an increase over 2008 of 2.7 per cent. However, the allocations made through the HEA (i.e. the grants paid to universities and institutes of technology) have been cut in nominal terms by 2 per cent, which in real terms is a cut of not far off 10 per cent. Whether this turns out to be the position will depend somewhat on what happens to the revenues generated by the increase of the so-called ‘registration charge’ to €1,500. If this is clawed back by the government, then things are as stated above. If it (or any of it) goes to the institutions, then the position may be better.

However, it is tempting to identify in this a message to the third level sector that it is not seen as a significant contributor to national strategic aims at this time. Allowing also for the fact that many of the institutions are already in financial crisis, the worse case scenario above would have a catastrophic effect on the system.

To balance this a little, I should point to the sum made available for capital projects (which is quite substantial), and the increase in funding for Science Foundation Ireland. The Minister in his speech also made a passing and slightly veiled reference to the possibility of the return of tuition fees.

Other than that, seems like bad news. We all had to expect a very tough outcome today, but overall the government’s approach to public spending as a whole turned out to be less tough than some had anticipated – so putting into relief the treatment of third level education.

In addition, the Budget documents announce the abolition of the Irish Universities Quality Board (IUQB) – though whether this can be done that simply remains to be seen…

I shall make some more informed comments when I had studied the documentation more closely, and when the IUA has had the benefit of a briefing from the HEA.