Posted tagged ‘student numbers’

The message from the third level: this can’t go on

August 20, 2010

I am going to say some critical things about the government in a moment, but I want to temper that and put it in context first. The story of higher education in Ireland over the past 15 years or so is not an altogether bad one. Universities today are much better placed to succeed in a global setting than they would have been then. Research funding in particular has transformed our prospects and has been largely responsible for the rise of Irish universities in global rankings. Higher education institutions now reflect to a much greater extent than they used to the composition of this country’s population. Many of the decisions taken by governments over the past decade or two have been genuinely excellent.

The one decision which was, in my opinion, an outright catastrophe was the decision to abolish tuition fees, and nearly all of our current problems stem in one way or another from that. I should stress that I believe this decision was taken for entirely laudable reasons; but it was dramatically wrong. The two main results of the decision were (a) that as the exchequer simply could not carry the burden of funding all tuition costs, funding per student declined substantially in real terms, to the point that it is now not much over half of what it was in 1995; and (b) that this ushered in a period of significant neglect of disadvantaged students, as scarce money was handed out to wealthier families. In addition, the mistake became almost impossible to remedy for political reasons: if you give the middle classes a present, don’t attempt to take it back unless you are prepared to live with their anger at the polls.

The position we are in now is that higher education is seriously under-funded. Irish universities and colleges are being asked to accept major funding reductions, but at the same time are being asked to take in more students and be beacons in Ireland’s drive to be a successful knowledge economy and society. The suggestion we are being asked to accept is that the institutions are not actually under-funded at all, that there are inefficiencies that must still be eliminated, and that there are weaknesses in financial management and control.

The universities in turn are making a case for a very different approach to funding, but are not necessarily making it effectively. There are few signs that politicians are changing their minds a a result, or that the universities have been able to strike a chord with the public. As a result, nobody bats an eyelid at the idea that funding can be reduced more while student numbers increase substantially, and while the government commits itself not to allow the one measure which could actually produce some improvement.

This really cannot go on. Unless there is a change of policy, I cannot see how the universities and colleges can responsibly add to their student numbers. It seems to me to be logical that numbers should now be capped at present levels, or even lowered, until a better funding arrangement can be agreed. To do anything else would be irresponsible, as the pressure of any additional numbers of largely unfunded students could have a serious negative impact on quality. In any case, I feel that we need to develop much greater clarity around the appropriate higher education participation targets and how these targets fit with a wider vision for Irish society.

I am pleased to see that the Hunt report is grasping this nettle. But as a country we do not have an excellent record of implementing such reports, and we don’t seem to be able to understand or accept that there really is a crisis here, and that its impact will not just affect university staff, but everyone who wants an Irish higher education institution to deliver a quality education for them or their families.

The numbers game

March 4, 2010

According to a report in the Irish Independent, the Department of Education and Science expects third level student numbers to rise over the next 20 years from 155,100 now to 268,100 (which is a curiously precise number), via 215,900 in ten years from now. A number of demographic factors are set to contribute to this, including the growing birth rate in Ireland and the growth in participation in higher education by both school leavers and people of a more mature age. The report in the Independent raises the obvious issue of funding, and makes the assumption that another €1 billion (presumably at today’s prices) will have to be found to pay for this increase. A worry that the higher education sector may have is that over the 20 years in question the state may well decide not to fund the 70 per cent growth in numbers but will simply ask the universities to absorb the additional cost – which is the approach currently being adopted.

But if we are to continue to pursue major growth in higher education, there are other issues we need to address in a much more explicit manner: (a) can current pedagogical methods satisfactorily address a system which not only has greater numbers but also a far greater variety of backgrounds, abilities and expectations? (b) Are we confident that the economy can offer suitable employment to a population the overwhelming majority of whom have higher education qualifications? (c) Will this mean the end of apprenticeship systems and the related jobs, or will these be absorbed into a higher education framework?

I am strongly in favour of opening up higher education to an ever larger proportion of the population, but this cannot be done just by increasing numbers (without considering the financing of the increase). What we are looking at here is potentially a fundamentally different higher education system; we need to ask some very searching questions about this.

Higher education: quality vs. quantity?

December 1, 2009

The chief executive of the Higher Education Authority, Tom Boland, writing in yesterday’s Irish Times, has pointed out that Irish universities and colleges need to address the question of whether a quality education is still possible while we target increasing student numbers resourced by declining funding. The point is not a new one – it has been made in this blog – but it is significant that the head of the government’s funding agency is addressing it.

In the article Tom Boland suggests that the current participation rate in higher education – around 65 per cent – could be declared to be ‘enough for now’, at least in the absence of more money to fund further increases. Increased recruitment could at a time of finite budgets significantly lower the funding per student, with serious quality implications.

A similar if slightly more nuanced approach might be to say that while we have a sufficiently high participation rate, the overall figures hide some distortions, in particular the unacceptably low participation by lower income groups. This might suggest that the only growth should be in recruitment from such groups, perhaps at the expense of places for those who have traditionally dominated the system. We also need to bear in mind that some of the most urgent pressures for growth relate to postgraduate programmes (including the PhD), and while this also raises funding issues, as a country we have not yet recruited enough such students.

At any rate, Tom Boland’s paper is a useful contribution to a debate he rightly suggests needs to become more vocal.

Numbers, numbers

November 12, 2009

Today the Higher Education Authority (HEA) announced the number of students in Irish universities and colleges. We had already known that the figures would show a significant increase over last year, and we now see that over the past two years student numbers have grown by some 14 per cent. This comes against the backdrop of significant cuts in state funding for higher education. Moreover, as the HEA has indicated, we must expect that the numbers will increase further over the next year or two.

The HEA also stated that, since 2000, third level honours student numbers have increased from 20,728 to 31,380 today, an increase of over 51 per cent. This has not been matched in any way by the resources made available.

It is time to ask ourselves some fundamental questions: is the policy of increasing participation levels further to over 70 per cent sustainable, given the lack of resources? Is the current approach to student admissions a responsible one – should we be growing numbers where we know that we will have quality issues as we do so? What does it tell us that while numbers continue to rise, participation by the economically disadvantaged has not materially improved: are we spending our scarce resources inappropriately?

Higher education holds the key to the country’s future. We need to plan it properly. Just piling up the numbers is not planning.

More and more students, less and less money, tighter controls

November 10, 2009

A perfect storm is beginning to form around Irish higher education, and conditions are such that the sector  will be in very serious trouble over the coming year. According to an article in the Sunday Tribune, figures to be released by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) this week will show a significant increase in student intake across the sector. If this turns out to be the case, then the income that each student brings to his or her institution will (without any funding cut) decline, as even before any cuts the resources are taken from a finite pool of money. But given that we are also being told to expect a cut in funding (10 per cent has been mentioned), the drop in funding per student (known as the ‘unit of resource’) could be very significant. In addition, universities and colleges will not be able to recruit staff to teach the additional students, which will add to the internal pressures.

One possible method for addressing the funding issues – tuition fees – has been very unwisely taken off the agenda. But not only has the prospect of this diversification of income been abandoned for now, in addition we face the real possibility that the new government commitment to additional schoolteachers will put further pressure on the education budget, and that higher education will be targeted as a result.

While all this is going on, we are also being warned to expect more monitoring and control, so that alongside the growing student numbers and the resulting resourcing issues we will find that initiative and flexibility will come under threat through centralised bureaucratic controls.

If left unchecked this development would lead to a catastrophe in the sector. However, in order to avoid this, the university (and third level) sector will need to set out its own positive agenda, showing how Irish universities can provide high value support for our current national needs and aspirations. We need to recognise that our case has not so far been accepted, and that therefore we may not have been good at putting it. It is time to set out our own vision of a higher education strategy that will deliver high quality teaching, research that will transform both industry and society, and civic engagement that will produce stability and equity. Universities hold the key to national regeneration – we need to ensure that this is understood and that the perfect storm is averted.