Lorraine Courtney: 'A degree of reality is needed about whether college courses are really worth taking'
More money is needed so our universities are not left to crumble. Third-level funding stands at €138m less than what is needed to cater for our rapidly expanding student numbers.
But where should the money come from? And how many graduates do we need? Isn't it time to question our obsession with herding every young person off to college at the taxpayers' expense?
Designed to create opportunities for more people and make all of us middle class, our love affair with third level has instead produced too many disappointments, and for some people crushing ones. We're increasingly seeing a generation who will never get the good jobs they were promised on graduation.
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And it turns out, we're destroying academia too.
In a pre-budget submission, the Irish Universities Association (IUA) has said an overall budget contribution of €377m - in operational, research and capital funding - is necessary to cater to a sector that has seen funding per student fall by 43pc over the past decade.
IUA analysis of the 2016 Cassells report on higher education says direct funding increases since 2015 - which stand at €87m overall - fall well short of the €225m identified as necessary by Peter Cassells, the report's author. Student numbers in higher education are forecast to grow by up to 25pc over the next decade due to a demographic bubble and this will place further strain on the already under-resourced system.
As ever more of us go to college, our universities are hurtling down the international league tables. In the latest QS World University Rankings, which benchmarks universities all over the world against each other, ours failed to make the top 100.
This outcome has been predicted. Academics repeatedly said that, if certain key things - including funding - were not addressed, our high rankings would not be sustained. It turns out they weren't.
Eight Irish institutions made it into the top 800, with Trinity College Dublin again the top ranked among them. Trinity was in joint 108th place in the latest rankings, although still down from 104th last year. University College Dublin was 185th. NUI Galway was 259th and. UCC was 310th. DCU was ranked in joint 429th. UL, Maynooth University and Technological University Dublin were ranked outside the top 500.
We're seeing colleges act, with Trinity College launching a philanthropic campaign aimed at generating €400m recently, so they take over more of the burden of funding themselves as the Government retreats. Other institutions are seeking to raise more money, albeit on a smaller scale, driven by similar concerns.
There are some problems with this: the numbers involved in charitable giving are far less than what we would expect from public spending. And there will always be concerns about academics over funders' agendas and dubious donations.
On the upside, when institutions don't rely on Government for their cash, they are stronger and more able to survive the bad times.
The 2016 OECD report tracked the educational attainment levels of EU countries and found that, among 25- to 64-year-olds (post third-level, working-age adults) Ireland had the second-highest percentage (43pc) with a third-level education, behind the UK (at 44pc).
Granted, a degree is important if you want to be a scientist. For the rest of us, it is only useful when you are looking for your first job. Once you're in the door, your BA in Ancient Civilisations quickly becomes irrelevant. It is your job history that interests future employers, not that you can recite Shakespearean monologues backwards.
The most recent Graduate Outcomes Survey carried out by the Higher Education Authority found that health and welfare graduates fare well, with 88pc employed or about to start working, followed by ICT graduates (82pc), engineering, manufacturing, and construction graduates (82pc), and business, administration and law graduates (79pc).
But only 72pc of graduates in social sciences and journalism were employed and this dropped to 63pc for arts and humanities graduates.
Tellingly, almost half of graduates end up doing jobs they could have done on leaving school.
The survey 'What do Graduates Do? The Class of 2013' found that graduates in arts and humanities, for example, who did find employment placed little value on the relevance of their degrees. Just 32pc said their education was relevant to their employment, and 49pc said it was "irrelevant" or "mostly irrelevant".
Most of us don't have to read a survey to know this because we're living it, either through first-hand experience or friends and family who've looked for a job over the past few years. Increasingly, going to college for college's sake is beginning to sound like the worst idea ever.
Of course, there should be opportunities available for those of us who want to learn. But right now we're conning an awful lot of young people, and their parents who have to fork out for registration fees and living allowances.
Not all degrees are equally valuable, and some are virtually worthless. We can't afford to push half our children through an educational pepper mill when they could do just as well in life without that certificate that's gathering dust in the attic.