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Cash-starved universities in crisis

Last Thursday in Leinster House, the heads of the seven Irish universities were hauled before the Oireachtas Committee on Education.

They were there to discuss the issue of fees and their impact on students, but throughout the course of the hearing, a much more startling pictured emerged. The message was clear: Irish academia is in deep crisis.

Like seven battle-weary generals, they trooped in to deliver a sermon that they are overseeing a failed third-level sector. Debt-ridden, starved of adequate funding, beset by mediocrity in terms of services, lecturers and facilities, and now facing the prospect of many of our most talented students being poached by top UK rivals like Oxford and Cambridge, the seven Irish universities are falling apart at the seams.

The main reason Irish universities are falling behind comes down to one thing. Money. Or rather, the lack of money.

To understand how serious the situation is, we must begin by looking at how Trinity College Dublin (TCD), University College Dublin (UCD), University College Cork (UCC), Dublin City University (DCU), NUI Maynooth, NUI Galway (NUIG) and the University of Limerick (UL) have altogether amassed a huge combined deficit of over €32m.

Since the abolition of third-level fees 15 years ago, the issue of funding has been to the fore of the debate around the quality of Irish third-level education.

At the time, many within the system said a total reliance on exchequer funding was not sufficient to meet the demands of a world-class university sector.

Those initial fears over budget pressures quickly became reality. Then, the process of benchmarking in 2002 set a train in motion which has seen the seven colleges burn up all of their cash reserves and rack up the sizeable deficit.

As a result, as heard at the committee on Thursday, the universities have repeatedly increased the student registration charge, now €1,500, up from €900, to plug the hole in their balance sheets.

They admitted for the first time that the charge is a fee by another name, but that they have no choice, given their budgetary problems, but to increase the amount being charged.

"Of course it is a fee, we all know it, but when the core money coming from Government is being reduced we have to do what we can to manage our budgets," said DCU president Ferdinand von Prondzynski.

UCD and UCC -- the worst offenders in terms of their debt mountains with current deficits of €13m each -- have had to take drastic steps to prevent their debt spiralling out of control.

Under president Hugh Brady, UCD has implemented a severe cost-cutting programme, which will see their payroll costs reduced by 6 per cent by December, as well as negotiations with service providers over fees charged. According to a college spokeswoman, had the measures not been introduced, UCD's debt would have hit €25m.

As part of a deal with the HEA, if the colleges can reduce their overall staff costs by 6 per cent, then they can begin making appointments to vacated positions, thus ending a resented moratorium on staff recruitment.

Despite the entrenched opposition from student leaders and from the Green Party, the case put forward by the college presidents that the sector is desperately underfunded is indeed well founded.

Away from all the rhetoric of a knowledge economy, the Government's claim of having world-class universities is as bogus as its commitment to them. Michael Murphy, president of UCC, has said to me several times that Ireland has no world-class universities, and drastic changes are needed if we even want to dream of getting there.

In truth, a world-class education system requires considerable funding, and the 8 per cent cuts insisted upon by Education Minister Batt O'Keeffe do nothing but damage Ireland's ability to compete internationally.

The total budget for the seven universities from the Government is €1.765bn this year in current spending, with about €141m for capital development. Compare this to the $3.7bn budget for Harvard in 2009, and we see in stark terms how off the pace we are in terms of funding.

The cuts will mean that we will lose ground on our main competitors, and many within UCD and TCD fear much of the progress made in moving up the international league tables will be undone.

Indeed, the current squeeze on funding has led to many at top level of UCD and Trinity to fear that they will see an exodus of their top lecturing staff, further damaging Ireland's standing.

That said, the college heads do not help themselves when revelations like the story in last weekend's Sunday Independent about a new multimillion-euro house for the president of UL appear, or the paying of €270,000 to top staff.

Even with the pressures on their budgets, universities have been and continue to be notorious wasters of taxpayers' money. Badly managed projects, quiet payoffs for disgruntled staff, lavish bonuses and perks for senior management and excessive spending on foreign travel are all paid for by the taxpayer.

Notwithstanding all that, there is no one who has a real interest in Irish education who feels that the decision not to re-introduce college fees was a monumental blunder. Condemning Irish colleges to a life of poverty is in no one's interest.

But also, as has been pointed out by me several times and many others, including Peter Sutherland last weekend, Ireland cannot sustain seven universities if it genuinely has hopes of creating a world-class institution.

Put it this way, do you not think that Irish students would gladly pay €5,000 a year to get a degree from a merged UCD/TCD super university that was the match of Oxbridge, Yale or Harvard? Of course they would.

The blame for all of this must be laid at the door of Batt O'Keeffe and his predecessors Mary Hanafin, Noel Dempsey and Michael Woods. Before the Greens scuppered his plans, O'Keeffe at least was willing to bring the fees issue to Cabinet, but Hanafin and the rest were too afraid to even talk about it. They also forced benchmarking on a sector that was unable to pay for it. Then, last week, O'Keeffe went on a solo run to abolish the NUI without telling anybody, saying it will save €3m.

If they are genuinely serious about creating a world-class system, they should maintain the current Government commitment in conjunction with the amount that the re-introduction of fees would bring.

Later this year, a strategy group headed by Colin Hunt, a former adviser to Brian Cowen at the Department of Finance, will recommend a series of major changes as to how Irish education at third level is funded.

It is expected that poorly performing universities will face having their budgets slashed under radical new reforms.

It is understood that the National Strategy Group for Education is to recommend the ending of funding based on student numbers and move to a system that promotes efficiencies and improved performance. The group is to report to Batt O'Keeffe before the summer recess.

But many are already saying that the Hunt proposals will not be sufficient to save Irish academia from its present slump.

So, in conclusion, the problem is that we have too many universities which are desperately underfunded. Students should pay fees. The Government is to blame for not dealing with that funding issue properly while lying about being committed to supporting education. We should merge several of the big universities including Trinity and UCD to create one true world-beater. Then we could all hold our heads high and justifiably boast of being a well-educated population, a knowledge economy.

Until then Ireland's grand fraud will continue.

Sunday Independent