Friday 28 April 2017

'Government cares more about seagulls than students' - IT Head paints bleak picture of third-level sector

Professor Ciaran O’Cathain, chair of Institutes of Technology Ireland and president of Athlone IT
Professor Ciaran O’Cathain, chair of Institutes of Technology Ireland and president of Athlone IT
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

A higher education boss today launched a scathing attack on the Government over third-level funding as he claimed politicians were more concerned about “savage seagulls” than 215,000 college students.

Professor Ciaran O’Cathain, painted a bleak picture of  conditions in Irish colleges that included leaking  roofs, computers grinding to a halt and cuts in mental health support for vulnerable students .

Prof O’Cathain, who is chair of Institutes of Technology Ireland and president of Athlone IT, accused politicians of “double speak” in a hard hitting address to a  conference on  future  funding of higher education in the Royal Irish Academy (RIA).

Colleges have suffered a 20 pc cut  in  State investment between 2010 and 2015, with an even starker, 50 pc fall in capital spending, such as for buildings and technology, at a time when student numbers  increased by 16-17 pc.

While Prof O’Cathain made a case  for increased State investment,  he also called for a levy on  industry to help finance higher education

In the course of his  address at the RIA , he referred to a parliamentary question that was asked over the summer, where the answer outlined the  cuts  in  higher education funding in recent years, but about which, he said,  there was  no follow through

“Sadly,  the question asked and the answer received made less impact within and without the Oireachtas than tales of savage seagulls. The wild birds, it seems, concern our parliamentarians far more than the fate of the 215,000 students currently in higher education”.

Prof O’Cathain  said the IoTI sought to meet with the deputy who raised the issue, but to no avail  and commented that “politicians are very adept at paying lip service to the importance of higher education institutions and their roles in the knowledge industry and economy”

He said the “stranglehold on investment is leading to erosion of our capital stock, equipment and infrastructural base. Leaking roofs and windows are going unrepaired, paint peels from walls, computers grind slowly, struggling to run industry software”.

“Were we another part of the education system, I would be tempted to suggest that we run bake sales or organise parish fêtes as means of solving these problems. However, this is a situation far beyond the capacity of some iced cupcakes to repair”.

He warned that as  ongoing investment in infrastructure was under threat, “so too is our capacity to attract international students to these shores”.

Prof O’Cathain also spoke about the effects of cuts on the .delivery of services to students and on the ability of institutes of technology  to conduct applied  research that could lead directly to jobs..

Among the areas highlighted was how the cuts were affecting student counselling services and so hitting the most vulnerable. He said the numbers attending college counselling serviced had doubled since 2008, but the staff:student ratio had deteriorated.

Prof O’Cathain also attacked the level of regulation on the sector  and said colleges were “ literally drowning in a sea of external regulation driven by seemingly endless, centralised, knee-jerk reactions to individual failings”.

He said in a situation  where student numbers had increased,  students were paying more and the State was paying less and  services to the students have disimproved, “the overriding concern appears to be more circulars and more regulation!

“In this context, I wonder whatever happened to the much-heralded Regulatory Impact Assessment process that was supposed to precede regulations and was trumpeted so strongly by the Taoiseach’s department?

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