Posted tagged ‘funding’

The appliance of science

August 5, 2008

This blog is coming to you from the United States of America. Over the past 24 hours I have shared in what is, these days, the air traveller’s standard experience: the sheer misery of overcrowded airports, flight delays and cramped conditions in the plane. Maybe a reflection for another time. But the delay in Newark airport – over several hours – allowed me to sit in front of a TV screen and watch C-SPAN. If there is one thing that marks out America for me as a mature political society, it’s C-SPAN – and I say that not only because I was once featured on it.

Today I was able to watch Barack Obama on the channel, somewhere in Michigan, setting out his stall on energy policy. But what struck me most in his comments was his commitment to significant funding for science research, as the basis for innovation that will alleviate energy problems and global warming. Innovation needs to be funded and supported – as the US has always recognised. It is to be hoped that our own approach to innovation will show a similar understanding and determination, not just in research, but also in the educational activities that produce the qualified people who can do the research later; and that we will remain consistent in less certain economic times.

Solving the major environmental, health and social problems is not just about saying things in a determined manner – it is about understanding that what Science Faculties do in universities will often be applied to intractable technological and scientific problems – and that is where our future lies. And moreover, that is what will persuade global companies to continue to invest here.

Paying for higher education

June 18, 2008

All Irish universities derive their income from a number of sources. However, most of it still comes from the state, by various different routes. There is the recurrent grant, which universities receive in order to teach undergraduate students, and which is weighted in accordance with certain assumptions about the costs of providing the various programmes. This is supplemented by the student fee, which under the ‘free fees’ system operating since the late 1990s is also paid by the state for all Irish and EU students. Both the recurrent grant and the fees are paid by the Higher Education Authority (HEA). Students from outside the EU have to pay a full fee, designed to cover the cost of their education. In addition, universities will receive money from research grants and contracts, much of which again will come from public money (through research councils, or the HEA in the case of the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions, or through Science Foundation Ireland).

Non-state income will consist of international student fees (see above), research contracts with the private sector, or various commercial activities.

Public expenditure on higher education has grown very significantly over the past decade or so, but the increase in money has arguably not kept pace with the significant growth in student numbers and the rate of inflation as experienced by universities (driven overwhelmingly by pay increases and increases in the cost of equipment and consumables used by higher education institutions). ‘Our’ inflation is considerably higher than the consumer prices index.

At the same time, Irish universities are competing with institutions in other countries that are considerably better funded. Universities in England have had the benefit of so-called ‘top-up’ fees paid by students, and shortly the institutions there will be able to determine the level of these fees without restriction. At that point English universities will be able to call on resources that are much higher than those available to third level institutions in Ireland, and it is possible that this will have a detrimental effect on the ability of our colleges to compete. US universities typically enjoy income which is a multiple of what we would have here.

Into this already very tricky environment comes the likelihood that, in the Estimates (decisions on public expenditure) for 2009, there will be even more severe cutbacks because of current economic conditions. Most universities here are already running deficits, and this will seriously exacerbate the situation.

So what needs to be done? First and most importantly, there needs to be an acknowledgment that universities are under-funded, and are too reliant on just one source of income. Secondly, we need to start thinking about how this significant risk can be spread. It is not generally popular to say this, but it is hard to see how the resourcing issues can be addressed without looking again at the question of student fees. While there has been at least some increase in participation rates in higher education by those from a disadvantaged background, the majority of students still come from the middle class. The problem with the free fees system is that it allows significant public money to be spent on assisting the better off, while investment in supporting the education of the disadvantaged is totally inadequate.

If we are to compete internationally, and if we are serious about widening access to higher education, we need to look again at ‘free fees’, and at least consider the introduction of some form of student fees, accompanied by a much more effective system of grants and supports for those who are not well off. If this nettle is not grasped (and politicians of all parties are reluctant to take it on), it is likely that Irish universities will run into serious debt, will fall behind international competitors, and will fail in their mission support the disadvantaged.