Higher education is being driven slowly down a cul-de-sac
Usually, government policy focuses on reasonably clear policy pathways. We have Programmes for Government, policy documents, Departmental revamps and ‘Ireland 2040’ visions for the future. These policies can be criticised or supported, but at least the strategy is clear.
But where is the government’s strategy for higher education?
In an unprecedented move just before the Budget, IFUT joined with the representatives of Universities, Institutes of Technology, Teachers’ Union of Ireland and USI to call on the government to respond to the growing crisis in higher education funding.
In a stark statement we jointly called for“an immediate move by Government to address the funding crisis in Budget 2019 or we risk an irreversible slide in the quality of our third level system. They clearly know what the problem is; now, they need to start fixing it”.
The statement warned that continued delay in addressing the deficit in third level funding is no longer tolerable.
Since the Budget the Irish Universities Association, representing our seven universities, has launched ‘Save our Spark’, a campaign to further highlight the escalating higher education funding crisis. Its aim is to “ensure a fit-for-purpose university system for the next generation.”
It is not just IFUT that feels that the fate of our higher education system and the future of tens of thousands of young people is in serious peril.
This year’s Budget allocated just €57m ‘extra’ funding on top of currentcommitments. The core funding gapidentified clearly by the Cassells Report of 2016 remains almost untouched, with allocations little more than half that identified as necessary by Cassells. A special Oireachtas Committee Report on third-level funding continues to languish in never-ending draft form.
Rapidly increasing student numbers more than wipe out the impact of mediocre additional funding that has been announced. State funding per third-level studenthere continues to deteriorate relative to competitors in the EU.
The funding deficit in higher education is now approaching a decade old and worsening. The stark fact is that higher education is being slowly driven down a cul-de-sac and the further the government forces it along this path the more difficult it will be to reverse the damage.
Let’s get back to where the government’s head is at.
It is startling that Budgetary planning could set aside €1.5 billion for a future rainy day fund while higher education is already drowning in debt.
IFUT has long proposed that a portion of Corporation tax be set aside as state funding to help maintain top class education for the tens of thousands of young people who enter third-level each year and who are necessary to sustain our society and economy.
The government has instead opted to prioritise setting aside a huge chunk of what it admits are ‘historically high levels of Corporation tax’ for a potential future ‘rainy day’ while higher education is drowning in underfunding right now.
The government is not only abdicating responsibility for funding third-level education. The further0.1% increase in the National Training Fund Levy, first announced last year, will facilitate the undermining of academic freedom and flexibility at university level, for administrators, lecturers and students alike. This will become even more acute in the context of severely restricted state funding.
We now have a new Minister for Education and Skills. This presents a major opportunity to look afresh at the issues in higher education, working alongside the Minister of State for Higher Education.
A useful initiative would be the establishment of a Working Group comprising all stakeholders in higher education. Its aim would be to bring forward proposals to be implemented in Budget 2020 to ensure delivery of adequate funding provision in subsequent Budgets, in line with the findings of the Cassells Report and Project Ireland 2040 proposals.