After more than two years of a pandemic unprecedented in our lifetimes, we can feel entitled to look in the rear-view mirror and relax in the knowledge of a battle fought and won to deliver first class teaching to our students against all the odds. While Covid-19 has not gone away we have, to a very large degree, developed means of getting on with our lives, including our working lives with Covid still in the community. The Director General of the World Health Organisation said last week "We have never been in a better position to end the pandemic. We're not there yet, but the end is in sight." So, as the restrictions have become less restrictive, we must acknowledge that a lot of this is down to commitment and innovation of IFUT members and our contribution to keeping the very fabric of higher education afloat during Covid is something that we, as individuals and as members of this Union, can be immensely and rightly proud of.
As we now return to a strange mix of an ‘old’ and ‘new’ normal, we might indeed expect that the road ahead for education should at least be clearer. Unfortunately, many of the long-term serious and mounting challenges to our sector that were temporarily shrouded by Covid are now coming sharply back into focus.
The combination of raging inflation and soaring student numbers threatens to overwhelm the funding and staffing crisis that has rumbled on unresolved since the economic crash of 2008. Ireland’s higher education student : staff ratio, currently 23.4 to 1 , remains among the worst in the OECD. Between now and 2030 we are expected to add the equivalent of another UCD in student numbers. We will no doubt see the immediate and practical impact of this unrelenting tsunami in numbers in our classrooms over the next few weeks.
Minister Simon Harris earlier this year announced ambitious plans to address key and long-term issues in higher education, many will recall the Minister’s commitment to ending precarity for Academics, a commitment made at our Annual Delegate Conference in May of this year. The Minister has secured a sum of €307m to achieve this objective of ending precarious working for academics. IFUT have been, with the other ICTU Unions, engaging on working groups over the Summer and into this Autumn in efforts to identify how to best deliver for our members out of this budget. We have known for many years that a figure such as this won’t right the wrongs that have been in place for too many years. However, we are confident that our inputs to the working groups will deliver some real and substantial change. We expect that this change will become apparent before the end of this calendar year with some improvements being signalled in this weeks’ budget.
Proposals earlier this month in his Department’s Options paper - to increase student grants and reduce students fees - are also very welcome and will help to ease the burden on individual students and families. The reality, however, is that all the measures announced to date may now merely melt the tip of the iceberg. The ship of higher education risks being fatally damaged by the underlying abyss of underfunding that continues to lurk unattended. Tackling the funding crisis affecting the reality of lives for hundreds of thousands of our young people must be a priority for government.
Results of a survey by the National Youth Council this month, suggesting that more than seven in 10 young people aged 18-24 are considering moving abroad because they feel they would enjoy a better quality of life elsewhere, are truly alarming. ‘Justification’ is coming from certain quarters for these alarming figures by stating that this was always the case, indeed if this was always the case this is not good enough. The crisis they face in seeking to weave their way through higher education no doubt plays a significant part in fostering this level of despondency.
We still await any sign or evidence that the clear commitment in the Programme for Government to “develop a long-term sustainable model for higher-level education” is any closer to being realised or acted on. The new Department of Higher Education risks being strangled in its ambition to deal with the issues by the Departments of Finance and Public and Expenditure and Reform that, while currently awash with unexpected taxation revenue, refuse to acknowledge higher education as a priority for investment.
It is time, once and for all, to address the funding crisis and the many unacceptable practices arising from underfunding that have emerged and consolidated within higher education over more than a decade.
Any ‘long-term sustainable model for higher education’ must address the following key areas:
- Introduce a clear plan to boost funding and teacher number - to cater for the projected 20% surge in student numbers between now and 2030.
- Reduce escalating overcrowding in classrooms, especially at first year level where drop-out rates are unacceptably high.
- Reverse the approach of universities to promote and develop low wage policies and precarious employment of teaching staff.
- Tackle employment difficulties for research and researchers and related areas.
Within IFUT we will continue in our efforts to build the Union to ensure that the above points are heard.
Welcome back and have a great 2022 / 2023 academic year.