Let's fix funding for higher education before it's irreparable
Published 13/06/2014 | 02:30
A recent televised debate on higher education showed the extraordinary divergence between fact, opinion and anecdote. Even for this reason alone, the publication by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) of its first report on the Higher Education System Performance is to be strongly welcomed.
The report to the Education and Skills Minister provides the HEA's assessment of how the higher education system is doing under the seven System Objectives which government has prioritised. These include the interlinked circles of teaching and learning, research, funding, structures and governance.
The report contains a wealth of factual data across all of these fields and draws conclusions that are very much positive.
The report paints a picture of a flexible and agile system, which has continued to deliver quality outcomes, even as state funding has declined dramatically.
The most striking single piece of evidence presented is the fact that, since the start of the economic crisis, the Irish higher education system has provided 25,000 extra places, while staffing levels have been reduced by 10pc. It has done this while funding has been reduced by 20pc per student – the latter a reflection of both declining Exchequer funding and reductions in staff pay.
The report records that the higher education attainment levels of 30-34-year-olds in Ireland are the highest in Europe. And even in the supposed black hole of maths and science skills, we now rank third best in Europe.
Overall, our graduate employment has already bounced back to pre-crisis levels. Similarly, in research, universities are aligning themselves with priority economic needs and continuing to perform at world-class levels of scientific excellence.
There are many other positives, but the report does not shy away from identifying some cracks, which, if left unattended, can rapidly propagate to undermine our system. Foremost among these are the 'terrible twins' of rising demand and falling funding.
Yes, the system has economised and restructured to cope with the effects of the crisis. But the prevailing winds from Government are for further cuts in resources – with a demand for a further 1pc reduction in staff headcount having just landed on the doorsteps of university presidents. With a further hike in student demand forecasted, the outlook is bleak.
As the economy cautiously moves towards a growth trajectory, the debate about the sustainability of higher education needs to move from an austerity-driven focus on cutbacks to one that fully recognises the investment potential of our universities and institutes of technology. The HEA report cites international findings of the correlation between graduate skills and growth in GDP. With few natural factor advantages, Ireland is extraordinarily dependent on people power for its success, but seems willing to starve the growth engine of necessary fuel.
There are many areas where we can make improvements, some at little or no cost. For example, the HEA raises questions about the scale of our ambitions for international education. Those ambitions would be more easily realised if we had some genuine joined-up thinking and action. This includes ensuring that fees and red tape in our justice and immigration system do not turn away bona fide students. It also requires a change in the mindset that refuses to countenance Exchequer-neutral incentives to drive significant overseas income, an area of major untapped potential.
At the same time, the stark reality of underfunding cannot be shied away from and, to its credit, the report is candid in this regard. It points to institutions sliding into deficit, to crumbling infrastructure and to threats to quality from rising student-staff ratios.
These realities, in turn, get reflected in the international rankings, which, though flawed, are nevertheless highly publicised to prospective students and staff alike.
The inescapable fact is that our funding model for higher education is broken. There is some comfort to be gleaned from the announcement by the Education and Skills Minister of a process to develop a policy on the future funding of higher education. That process is due to culminate in a report at the end of this year. In light of the HEA's findings, we need action sooner.
A commitment to roll back the recently announced staff cuts, and an injection of funding in the forthcoming Budget and estimates this autumn would be a good place to start.
Ned Costello is chief executive of the Irish Universities Association