Saturday 24 September 2016

New plan for government must prioritise plan for funding third-level education

Patrick Prendergast

Published 09/03/2016 | 02:30

'Universities are brushing up against the limits of what can be obtained from other sources such as philanthropy and commercial activities. As it is, less than half of Trinity’s income now comes from the exchequer.' Getty Images
'Universities are brushing up against the limits of what can be obtained from other sources such as philanthropy and commercial activities. As it is, less than half of Trinity’s income now comes from the exchequer.' Getty Images

Higher education barely got a mention during the General Election campaign. That was understandable - the election was dominated by issues such as health, housing, fairness and the economic recovery. One reason given was that we were awaiting the report of the Expert Group on Future Funding of Higher Education. The broad details are now in the public domain thanks to yesterday's Irish Independent.

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But those negotiating the programme for the new government cannot afford to wait for that report to be published. The programme has to include decisions about funding higher education for two very good reasons - demographic and economic.

Ireland is fortunate to have such a young population, with record numbers of students in primary and secondary schools.

No government will want to choke off their ambition to have successful careers. Even to maintain the current rate of transfer from Leaving Certificate to college will necessitate a substantial increase in higher education places - of the order of 29pc. Meeting this challenge should be part of our ambition for Ireland, part of our contract with future generations. We must not bottle this challenge. We should face it squarely.

It will be impossible to accommodate these increased numbers with current levels of funding. The stark reality is that if we don't plan, invest in and fund higher education, there won't be enough college places for the children already in our primary and secondary schools.

Capping the intake at its present level is not the answer. If we did, the current transfer rate of 56pc going from Leaving Certificate to higher education would drop to around 43pc, which would be a disastrous setback to social mobility and solidarity. Worse than capping would be more unfunded expansion, eroding quality and damaging opportunity.

Creating the extra places will be a challenge for the government, which will rely on taxes generated by an expanding economy to invest more in public services.

But it will be worth it - because sustained growth in the economy depends to a great extent on the supply of graduates who are highly skilled and educated to avail of the opportunities of a rapidly changing and technology-driven labour market.

Competitor countries for foreign direct investment realise all this. They are pumping resources into their higher education systems. Even in 2008, Ireland's spend was not at the OECD average, and since then exchequer funding to universities has declined by 28pc while student numbers have increased by about 17pc.

At the same time, capital investment has tumbled, resulting in crowded lecture halls and labs. Already, investors are asking questions about the ranking of Ireland's universities and institutes of technology.

While the final report is not officially available, we now know that the funding group chaired by Peter Cassells has calculated that by 2030 we will need an additional €1bn annually to fund the system adequately.

The group has also said that "the future system of funding in Ireland must be sufficient to deliver a higher-education experience equal if not better to that in neighbouring countries and competitors, meet the needs of employers in the private, public and social sectors and achieve wide access and affordability for students from different backgrounds".

I couldn't agree more and I also endorse the general thrust of the group's earlier recommendations for a reformed funding package with five integrated elements:

Increased State funding to extend capacity and improve the quality of the student experience;

  • A loans scheme to cover fees;
  • Enhanced employer contribution;
  • Increased sources of other income;
  • A better system of student maintenance.

A loans scheme would benefit hard-pressed families who struggle to meet the current €3,000 charge.

A degree improves a young person's future earning power dramatically - and the idea behind income-contingent loans is that the repayments would kick in only when a graduate reaches a certain salary level.

However, I'm against suggestions that the current €3,000 charge be frozen.

If it is frozen, then additional funds will be needed from the Exchequer to make up for the serious shortfall in State funding as universities are brushing up against the limits of what can be obtained from other sources such as philanthropy, non-EU students and commercial activities.

As it is, less than half of Trinity College Dublin's income now comes from the Exchequer.

The Cassells group has concluded that the higher-education sector has proved itself flexible and resilient in recent years, and has engaged in a significant programme of cost-cutting and administrative renewal.

As the parties negotiate a new programme for government, this is an ideal opportunity to spell out Ireland's national ambition for a quality higher-education system that is inclusive and accessible, a system that will be financed sufficiently to prepare all young people for a rapidly changing and challenging world.

To further delay decisions on funding higher education would jeopardise everyone's future.

One reason why Pádraig Pearse promoted military rebellion in Ireland in 1916 was so we could gain control of our own education system.

He thought it was the single greatest virtue of freedom. In this centenary year, a truly important initiative would be to place third-level education on a secure footing once and for all.

Patrick Prendergast is provost of Trinity College Dublin, the University of Dublin, and an engineer

Irish Independent

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