Live horse and you’ll get grass!

For the past decade higher education institutions, staff and students have been forced to survive on a mantra from government of ‘live horse and you’ll get grass’.  But on 20th February last, the Department of Education and Skills held a novel ‘Stakeholders Consultation on Higher Education,’ on the site of the newly launched Technological University of Dublin, to discuss a brighter future. 

The Department presented eight ‘Priorities’ for Higher Education in 2019, the first of these was to ‘maintain the development of a sustainable model for higher education.’  The other seven largely formed sub-themes, although there was an emphasis on strengthening ‘the legislative and regulatory model for higher education governance.’

The consultation was very welcome in its own right.  The Department has a new Cabinet Minister in Joe McHugh, who is clearly anxious to assert the interests of his Department in advance of preparations for the next Budget, and a Higher Education Minister, Mary Mitchell-O’Connor, who has equally shown great determination to address thorny issues such as gender imbalance and bias.

The portents for change should be good.  We are not that far from a General Election. There is a widespread view that higher education has been badly starved of resources for a decade or more.  The limited ‘fiscal space’ that restricted government spending coming out of recession is a thing of the past, even permitting the last Budget to set aside a billion euro for a rainy-day fund.

The reality is starkly different.  There is as yet no indication from government that the crisis in higher education is fully acknowledged or that it will be addressed.  Instead the consultation was presented with stats extolling increased investment (over the past year only), using figures that vary with each outing and now appear to include normal salary increases as additional spending.

It is conveniently forgotten that this month marks the third anniversary of publication of the specially commissioned Report on Future Funding for Higher Education in March 2016. 

That report has been left to simply gather dust.  The Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills has failed as yet to conclude discussion on the issues raised. 

It is worth repeating some of the stark comments from that Report’s chair, Peter Cassells, in his Foreword to the Report.

He said that the “funding system is simply not fit for purpose.  It fails to recognise the current pressures facing higher education institutions or the scale of the coming demographic changes.  It also fails to fully recognise the pressures on families and students, not just because of the €3,000 fee but also the high living and maintenance costs associated with studying and successfully progressing through college.  These pressures are now seriously threatening quality within the system and the ability of our sons and daughters to gain the knowledge and develop the capabilities that will enable us to realise our national goals.”

That was three years ago.  The report was followed by two further Budgets in which higher education investment continued to slide badly.  A modest attempt was made to reverse the trend last year.  But higher education is still threading water due to the preceding decade of brutal cutbacks, making it clearly the poor relation in the entire education sector.

Let’s repeat a second quote from Cassells “Countries with whom we seek to compare ourselves have pinpointed investment in higher education … as the catalyst for economic and social development.  In these countries post-secondary level education is well resourced, high-quality and engaged.”

The Department of Education and Skills has so far proven unable to deliver on the above two key critiques.  Its hands may well be tied by another dead hand at the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (DPER), where a Thatcher like refrain of ‘No, No, No’ still applies to even the most valid demands for increased investment. 

The fiscal space has expanded greatly, but it can no longer be alluded to, it is a truth that dare not speak its name.  This is now the real battle that must be fought by the Minister, the Department and all those who value, and fear for the future of higher education.  Because, as far as the mandarins of DPER are concerned, the search for grass must continue!