Thursday 29 September 2016

Richard Bruton: It's easy to find fault with proposals - but those doing so should tell us how they would fund higher education

Richard Bruton

Published 12/07/2016 | 02:30

Education Minister Richard Bruton. Photo: Tom Burke
Education Minister Richard Bruton. Photo: Tom Burke

Without a strong economy, it is impossible for us to build a compassionate society. Without a fair society, it is impossible for us to create a growing economy.

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The higher education sector is at the heart of delivering on massive social and economic challenges:

  • Providing better life opportunities for people from disadvantaged areas.
  • Training the skilled workers needed for a growing economy.
  • Delivering major research and innovation projects to help solve the big problems of our time.

But it needs to be properly funded.

Many people do not realise it, but third-level education is on the brink of a funding crisis. During the downturn our universities and Institutes of Technology dealt admirably with increased student numbers in the context of tightened budgets. Now, in the coming decade, the demographic bulge will start to come through to higher education, with numbers expected to be nearly 30pc higher by 2030.

Doing nothing about higher education funding is not an option.

As Peter Cassells, the lead author of the report said, none of the options are easy. All of them are difficult. But we have to choose one of them. Otherwise we will be failing future generations.

As we published the report and referred it to the Oireachtas Committee I said that I believed we needed a consensus across political parties on this issue over the next 10 years.

Everyone agrees that significant investment is now needed - the next step is reaching agreement in a responsible way on where that money will come from.

It is disappointing to see some political parties have already ruled out some of the options. It is easy to find fault with one proposal or another. If different political parties agree with the ambitions set out in the report for the higher education sector, but disagree with the options put forward to fund those ambitions, then they must outline their own solutions as to where we will find the money to pay for the investment that everyone agrees is needed.

For new politics to work, the committee should consider the evidence in the report, call witnesses, speak with the members of the expert group, look to other countries, and then make a decision which will be in the best interests of students, parents, our society and our economy.

I believe strongly that any increase in funding for the third-level sector must be strongly linked to results. I want to see 50,000 upskilling and reskilling places over the next five years. I want to increase participation in higher education by people in the most disadvantaged areas.

I want to see better results from our research and innovation investment. And I want to increase the numbers of entrants studying on a flexible basis (online, part-time).

Our capacity as an Oireachtas to chart a sustainable path in areas such as health and education which will deliver for our people will ultimately reflect how successful new politics is.

Richard Burton is the Education Minister

Irish Independent

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