Future Funding of Higher Education in Ireland - IFUT Submission

Submission to the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science from the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT), February 2022


1: Introduction:

The Joint Committee sought a ‘brief written submission’ from IFUT on the 18th of January 2022 under various headings. This document is our response to that invitation. It is hoped that all points will be examined and assessed by members of the joint committee with care, having particular regard to the fact that IFUT is Ireland’s only trade union whose membership is composed exclusively of academic, research and senior management staff in Higher Education Institutions. 

2: Future Funding Model for Higher Education 

2.1: Over 90% of Irish people want increased investment in higher education (HE). This unsurprising figure came from a body of research commissioned by the Coalition for Publicly Funded Higher Education in 2018.  The research was undertaken by the highly respected polling organisation Behaviour & Attitudes (B&A).

2.2: The Coalition for Publicly-Funded Higher Education comprised of the following organisations: Fórsathe Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT), the Irish Second-Level Students’ Union (ISSU), SIPTU, the Teachers Union of Ireland (TUI), and the Union of Students in Ireland (USI).  The ‘Coalition’ has since been re-branded as ‘Education Futures’.

2.3: 91% of people who expressed a preference wanted increased investment in HE, according to the research.  Between 54% and 70% of all age groups said they agreed strongly with the statement ‘public investment in the higher education sector should be increased,’ with support strongest among those under-25. 

2.4: Support for increased public investment was strong among all social classes, with only 8% of all respondents saying they disagreed. The situation, as set out by the above ‘Coalition’ in 2018 has not changed.  The Coalition also unveiled an updated policy document entitled: ‘Making the Case for Publicly-Funded Higher Education’. This argued that a 10% reduction in HE staffing since 2008 is equivalent to a 30% cut in financial support for the sector. Modest recent increases in funding have failed to keep pace with increased student numbers.  Far from being a radical idea, HE systems funded mostly from public sources are the norm internationally, while fully-free public education exists in many of the strongest and most competitive economies.

2.5: More recently, a document prepared by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions ICTU Education Sector Groupin the Spring of 2020 entitled ‘The Case for Publicly-Funded Higher Education’ The Case for Publicly Funded Higher Education | ICTU  sets out three recommendations in its conclusion, these recommendations remain valid today.

A: Funding cuts and insufficient funding across Universities interfere with the Academic Freedom that should prevail within these Institutions.  

B: Insufficient and inadequate funding affects tenure and gives rise to precarity.  

C: Across the Universities Academics are, in advancing their own employment security, determining their research preferences based on the availability of external funding, as securing research funding is a weighty consideration for decisions about tenure, permanency or promotion.

2.6: Our universities are increasingly forced to fund themselves. This is not hyperbole or mere partisan argument, it is literally and factually the actual reality in the sector. For example, recent figures from Trinity College Dublin show the proportion of its income from the exchequer collapsed from 70% in 2008 to just 39% in 2020.

2.7: The Education at a Glance OECD Report of 2021, showed that Ireland invested 3.3% of GDP in education from primary to third level. This was below the OECD average of 4.8%.  When tertiary-level education is considered separately, Ireland spent slightly higher than the OECD average.  However, the most crucial data coming from this Report is the data relating to the Student:Teacher ratios across the HE sector. Recent studies show that the impact of the 2008 recession has not been addressed in HE.  Current student to staff ratios have already declined to more than 23:1 compared to an OECD average of 16:1, placing often unbearable strain on teaching staff and tutors.   Nothing has been done, to any degree, to address this deficit. The situation has, in fact, likely worsened since the publication of the last OECD Report as the number of students continues to increase on foot of the demographic bubble and the increasing numbers of international students who bring their considerable fees with them.

2,8: During Covid thousands of extra student places were added in HE, further exacerbating the already dire student:teacher ratios. The demographic bubble of the next decade will add tens of thousands of additional students to overall numbers during the period up to 2030.

2.9: The government’s new 10-year National Development Plan for additional funding for HE capital expenditure, to cater for demographic change, retrofitting campus buildings to combat climate change and boost digital competency, is welcome. But it does not direct funding to where the core of the issue lies within the sector.

2.10: Funding should be directed towards improving the student:teacher ratios and to ensuring that those working within the sector are adequately remunerated so that they can concentrate on their primary role without the distractions of constantly chasing research funding.  

3: Other Priority Issues in Higher Education:

3.1: As a member of the Education Futures Group IFUT was a party to a submission in response to the National Access Plan 2022 -2026 Consultation Paper of April 2021.  The Education Futures Group recommended:


  • An end the Student Contribution Charge,
  • The provision of adequate affordable student accommodation for all students living away from home,
  • The further development of the Access Offices,
  • The promotion of lifelong learning, particularly and in the first instance, to those who are already engaging in tertiary education,
  • The provision of additional training and supports to all those working within education so that they may properly communicate a ‘whole of institution’ approach to students engaging in third level education, thus promoting the students’ understanding of their place in, and the value of, higher education,
  • The linking of the outcomes of recent reports and reviews and the drafting of one single coherent plan for the sector,
  • The development, in cooperation with Student Representatives, of a set of ‘conditions’ below which no student would be expected to operate.   

The above points were submitted by Education Futures to the Higher Education Authority on the 15th of June, 2021

4:  Research, Innovation and Engagement:

4.1: It is salutary to ask ourselves the question; “where would Ireland have been without our Universities Research over the past 24 months?” The role of the Researcher is core in any University and is recognised as such in Section 12.(a) of the Universities Act, 1997.  That Act states that the objects of the university shall include; “To advance knowledge through teaching, scholarly research and scientific investigation”.

4.2: Section 13 of the same Act determines that it is a function of the university to ‘promote and facilitate research’.  This was never envisaged as being restricted only to ‘planned research’ as, according to IFUT President Dr Anthony Harvey, ‘if you know what you’re going to discover, then you must have already discovered it.  More to the point, you are closing the door to the discovery of anything unexpected’.

4.3: A recent report by the Initiative for Science in Europe (https://initiative-se.eu/precarity-paper-2021/) states that “precarity of academic careers is one of the most pressing issues of the research system.” The IUA Researcher Career Development Framework IUA-THEA-Researcher-Career-Development-and-Employment-Framework-Update-August-2021.pdf does not alleviate most of the systemic problems underlying the Irish research ecosystem, it amplifies them. It should be noted that research staff and their unions were not consulted during the drafting of this framework so it not surprising that it is not fit-for-purpose and will have a negative impact on the creation of an “Island of Innovation”.   

4.4: The National-Strategy-for-Higher-Education-2030.pdf (hea.ie) in recommendation 10 of page 72 states: “A clear career path should be established for researchers that develops their talents and rewards them appropriately”.

4.5: The Joint Committee must prioritise focussing on addressing the level of precarious employment that Researchers face within the Higher Education Sector.  The IUA ‘Framework’ sets out, on page 28, seven stages of a ‘researcher employee life cycle’, with the seventh being termination! Such a fate would follow a period of continuous employment of up to 15 years and five successive fixed term contracts of employment!  There is no other category of employee engaged on similar terms anywhere.  This must never, ever be viewed as acceptable or consistent with the recommendation of the Strategy for Higher Education 2030.

5: Climate Change and Global Warming:

5.1: IFUT believes that the Joint Committee must recognise the worldwide challenge represented by global warming. If ever there was a circumstance requiring an agile research and innovation response it surely must arise in the context of this unprecedented global crisis. Therefore, as a matter of urgency, we should be giving serious consideration to resourcing climate change research and training. Unlike the world-wide emergency caused by the Covid-19 Pandemic this threat to humanity will never be resolved though vaccination. We need new thinking, new theories and new solutions and we need them urgently.

6: The Centrality of Academic Freedom as a Prerequisite for any University Worthy of the Name:

6.1: At a recent “Scholars at Risk” Conference on Academic Freedom an IFUT Contributor included the following point in their contribution to the conference:

“[There is a] healthy, productive outcome that results when academic freedom is practiced at both individual and institutional level according to the Haldane Principle (whereby the direction of research is decided by the researcher, not by the funder or the institution) […] The threat to this comes not from the identity of the funder, but from the intrusion of a profit motive.”

6.2: The speaker went on to make the point that even the US military, when funding research in US universities, allowed for institutional and academic freedom and an open agenda for research because “the military knew it was the key to productivity.” The Irish Federation of University Teachers is deeply concerned that the benefits of Research and Innovation are framed solely within the context of an economic return. It is a matter of historical fact that some of the most famous and socially important discoveries were made by scientists and researchers who had literally no idea, at the time of their discoveries, of the future benefits which accrued from their research and experiments.

6.3: All aspects of research across the higher education sector need to be properly financed and staff working on Blue Skies research should have contracts of employment comparable to colleagues working in industry on the commercialisation of research. There is also a large “opportunity cost” paid by Researchers in forgoing an entry to full-time employment in industry upon completion of their PhD degrees. In a recent study of Post Docs in the United States, Kahn and Ginther found that over a 15-year period ex-Post Docs in industry earned a total of $239,970 (21%) less than PhD holders who directly entered industry. The authors highlighted the fact that; “The current system of postdoctoral training benefits the Post Docs’ supervisors, mentors, their institutions, and funding agencies by providing them with highly educated labour willing to work long hours to produce cutting edge science at low cost”. These findings, and the lack of academic posts, are becoming more widely known and appreciated by postdoctoral research staff so, to be blunt, the Strategy can “demonstrate the importance of research and innovation across higher education” by putting in place career structures for research staff that encourage our highly trained PhD-holder workforce to remain in HEI research and have comparable employment opportunities and remuneration to colleagues in industry.

7: Conclusion:

7.1: The importance of the work which the Joint Committee is embarked upon cannot be emphasised and stressed highly enough. Your deliberations and recommendations will shape the future of our Higher Education system and, consequently, the character and nature of our country’s well-being and status for decades to come.

7.2:  Publicly funding our Higher Education system is not a drain on resources but an investment, yielding dividends at a higher multiplier rate than many, in our future.

7.2: The members and elected leaders of the Irish Federation of University Teachers salute your work and pledge to assist with it in any manner that you may deem to be helpful and appropriate.