Higher Education following Covid-19

Proposals for a new Programme for Government from the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT)

In party manifestos before the General Election both Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael highlighted the need to make long-term plans to promote higher education:

Fianna Fáil:  “sustain the sector into the future and ensure it is an engine for economic growth and prosperity.”

Fine Gael:  “committed to establishing a long-term funding model for higher education.”

The devastation of Covid-19 on our economy and society has radically altered the priorities and challenges for any new government.  However, the broad commitments regarding higher education outlined above remain valid despite the greatly altered economic and financial environment.  The new programme for government must, at its core, recognise that there existed a crisis in funding in higher education pre the Covid-19 pandemic and that both crises must be addressed within the programme.

Higher Education has been in financial crisis since the 2008 financial collapse and the sector had been awaiting a co-ordinated government response which was highlighted in the specially commissioned 2016 Cassells Report.  This underfunding crisis has left the higher education sector in Ireland with a huge challenge to meet the current needs of students which will be compounded into the future by a demographic bubble which forecasts a growth of up to 25 per cent additional students entering into higher education over the coming decade.

Covid-19 has caused specific and very serious financial losses which will undermine the ability of many institutions to continue to deliver high quality education to students. 

Key negative outcomes include:

  • Loss of income from closure of student residences.
  • Loss of income from a wide range of 2020 summer events and schools.
  • Likely loss of a majority of international student registrations for the next academic year.
  • Loss of income due to deferred completion of research projects and extreme difficulty in confirming new research funding and projects.
  • Potential significant loss of student registration numbers for next academic year due to entry deferral arising from uncertainty.

The above issues create the most serious threat for college staffing levels, students and college administrations alike.

The situation is particularly relevant for thousands of contract and precariously employed lecturers, tutors and researchers, who face potential unemployment for the new academic year, without whom university education risks grinding to a halt.

Higher education and the tens of thousands of graduates produced every year will be essential to economic and societal recovery post-Covid-19. 

IFUT is therefore requesting that specific reference to saving higher education in the context of the impact of Covid-19 be included in any new Programme for Government, as follows:

  1. That the content referenced above from the Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael manifestos be combined to pledge to “sustain the sector into the future and ensure it is an engine for economic growth and prosperity, through a commitment “to establishing a long-term funding model for higher education.” 
  2. That higher education be included in any allocation of emergency funding or other measures to revive the economy post Covid-19.
  3. Retention of a Minister for Higher Education and establishment of a new Department of Higher Education and Research.
  4. Involvement of all higher education stakeholders in a process to develop a Way Forward for Higher Education to complete this work before the end of 2021.