Thursday 29 September 2016

Government will ignore college funding at its peril

John Walshe

Published 08/03/2016 | 02:30

Report author Peter Cassells. Pic: Mark Condren
Report author Peter Cassells. Pic: Mark Condren

Health and homelessness were the main social issues in the General Election debate which allowed politicians to conveniently ignore the elephant in the room - the crisis in higher education.

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And make no mistake there is a financial crisis in the system which the new government will overlook at its peril. Unless politicians face it then our third-level colleges can't meet the rising demand for places and the quality of what they are offering will suffer.

This will seriously affect the government's hopes of attracting more investors who need a steady supply of high quality graduates.

Our young population - 40pc under the age of 30 - gives us a unique competitive advantage over other countries but they have to be educated. The number of students staying on until their Leaving Certificate is increasing and will peak in 2029, when it is projected to be 27pc higher than last year.

And we do need more graduates as the experts predict that more than half of all job opportunities in Ireland over the period to 2025 will require higher education qualifications.

Peter Cassells and his team on the Expert Group on Future Funding of Higher Education have been clear in everything they've said over the past year - mainly that the current level of funding is not sustainable.

Student numbers have shot up, but core funding per student dropped 15pc in the six years to 2014 and staff numbers plummeted while essential refurbishment and building work slowed down dramatically.

Not alone can the system not take any more cuts, it's up against the ceiling in terms of maximising 'efficiencies'.

Putting things right will cost €1bn extra annually by the end of the next decade, and we should start planning for that 50pc increase now by front-loading more aid to the system.

That's apart from the separate need for a sustained capital programme.

The group envisages a new funding model comprising increased State aid for core funding, an income contingent loans scheme, more from employers through the employment levy and increased income from other sources such as philanthropy. The levy fund yields about €340m annually, earmarked for SOLAS, Springboard and various targeted programmes.

This could usefully be increased from its present rate of 0.7pc.

Lest there is any mistake about the urgency of taking decisions, the group has warned that higher education's contribution to the country's economic and social development "can no longer be assumed and is, in fact, severely threatened".

A gradual increase in State funding simply "won't create the level of scholarship across the humanities, social science and STEM disciplines that is critical to the next phase of Ireland's economic, social and cultural development", it said.

The group has also dismissed as "illusory" the view that new information technology can reduce the cost of higher education and allow for more students, or that a cap on intake offers a solution to the funding crisis.

Virtually all political parties promised to increase apprentice intake, which should offer more opportunities to young people who might otherwise have felt compelled to enrol in higher education.

But a college degree will remain the goal of the majority of future Leaving Cert students and their parents.

It would be a brave politician who would close off that avenue to them.

The Cassells report had been promised by the end of last year but the deadline was extended partly because the group had to await and take on board the findings of the recently published new National Skills Strategy. The other main reason was that additional work needed to be done on the various options.

The final version is unlikely to be published by the outgoing Minister Jan O'Sullivan but that should not delay discussion of what are the well flagged recommendations of the expert group.

Nor should it delay the parties to the next government from weaving some commitments into the Programme for Government. Finding the resources and the political courage to take hard decisions about a loans scheme won't be easy.

But it's time, as I once heard an academic say, to "bell the elephant".

John Walshe is an education consultant and was special adviser to former education minister Ruairi Quinn

Irish Independent

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