Posted tagged ‘Budget 2010’

So where is the Budget taking us?

December 10, 2009

The main emphasis in the early reporting on the government’s Budget for 2010 has been on social welfare benefits and public sector pay. Of course, these matters are significant both in terms of their impact on the exchequer and in terms of the element of controversy associated with them. The government has stayed largely true to its determination to tackle the current budget deficit through expenditure cuts rather than through fiscal adjustments. The impact of all this in both financial and political terms will become clearer shortly.

Other adjustments in public expenditure have so far received less immediate attention, and higher education funding is amongst those. It may be significant that the Minister for Finance, in his budget speech, only used the word ‘education’ twice, both in the same passage (concerning itself with measures to allow people to return to education at this time). Higher education, universities, institutes of technology and other colleges were not mentioned by him at all. Even the recently popular term ‘innovation’ doesn’t get much attention. All of this may be a little curious, because education and innovation (however the latter may be understood) are at the heart of the country’s economic recovery strategy.

It is all the more surprising because, when considered in detail, the Book of Estimates does not contain as much of an assault on higher education as some might have imagined it would. The allocation for third level institutions is down by 4 per cent compared with last year. In ordinary times this would have university leaders foaming at the mouth and talking about the imminent demise of civilisation we know it; not this time. Many may in fact have expected something worse and are quietly relieved. However, as student numbers have grown the impact may still be very significant, and how some of the institutions are able to manage this remains to be seen. Some higher education institutions in Ireland have been in very significant financial crisis already.

The overall budget for research and discovery, including R&D that may be closer to market, has also gone down, but again not by as much as some had feared. The Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions (PRTLI) is safe for now. Expenditure on SFI and related research programmes sponsored by the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment will be down by 7 per cent compared with the past year, and while that is serious it will allow the continued funding of high value research. Research programmes sponsored by the Higher Education Authority are down 5 per cent.

What is missing from all this is an overall vision for higher education, or a medium to long term view of what strategic objective are to be pursued by this country’s universities. Of course this may be more easily found in the report of the Higher Education Strategic Review group. In the meantime we may be able to handle this year’s reductions in grants, but we should remind ourselves that Irish higher education was already very seriously under-funded and is being increasingly crippled in attempting to tackle our position in global rankings.

And unpopular though it is in many circles, nothing in this Budget and Estimates persuades me that, in the medium term, Irish universities could survive without the reintroduction of student tuition fees or some other form of student contribution. It is time for us to decide what kind of university sector we want for Ireland, and how we can secure it financially.

Budget and Estimates 2010: some first impressions

December 9, 2009

It will be useful to present a more reasoned analysis when the details have been assessed more closely, but at first sight the funding allocations to higher education in the (Irish) government’s Budget and Book of Estimates for 2010 have not been reduced by as much as might have been anticipated. The reduction in grants to universities and other third level colleges is 4 per cent. However, given increased student intakes this past autumn, in real terms – i.e. per student – the reduction may be greater. But even with that caveat the overall figure is perhaps less bad than had been feared, or so it seems to me at least.

Significantly, the government appears to be committed to the continued funding of high value research programmes (including PRTLI), which is vital not just for the universities but also for the capacity of Ireland to lift itself out of recession.

Of course at the level of individual staff working in higher education, other parts of the Budget will lead to significant reductions in living standards; maintaining morale may be challenging over the times ahead.

I shall write more when I have looked at the data in more detail.