Continued cuts risk the future of our third-level sector

Policy decisions are taken without considering policy and planning. Irish universities have absorbed serious funding cuts and now face a crisis

Campus cuts: Irish universities have absorbed reductions in funding  while maintaining acceptable levels of excellence and quality. Photograph:  Dara Mac Donaill

Campus cuts: Irish universities have absorbed reductions in funding while maintaining acceptable levels of excellence and quality. Photograph: Dara Mac Donaill


The central feature of modern public services is mutual support across communities, founded on shared social objectives. The provision of public services is not defined solely by economic rules. Universities have a major educational role in promoting research and providing education and training for higher-level professional, technical and managerial personnel.

The proposed cuts to university staff salaries under Croke Park II and reductions in recent years mean that every pay increase achieved since 2000 will be eroded for all academics below the level of professor. When adjustments for the Consumer Price Index are taken into account, a college lecturer will now earn 3.6 per cent less than in April 2000.

Significant numbers of junior staff in the universities and colleges face the threat of compulsory redundancy. Government policy and direction in higher education indicates a distrust of academics in their role of developing university education in the best interests of this country.

Autonomy in the university is vital. Free of the pressures from political and financial interest groups, universities can serve learning, research and the society of which they are an integral part.

The Higher Education Authority (HEA) has provided no rationale for its centralised and technically based proposal to distribute educational and research activity among institutions to replace existing systems of research activity.

The policy narrative suggests that there will be less inefficiency in terms of “scale”, or “critical mass”, despite the fact that no projected cost efficiencies have been outlined. All too often policy decisions concerning the future of major aspects of our higher education system are taken in the absence of adequate policy and planning considerations. Restructuring is seen as a solution without any attempt to identify and deal with any actual problems within the system.

Between 2008 and 2012 recurrent grant allocations to universities and colleges fell by 25 per cent. The 2013 Budget brought a further 7.4 per cent reduction in general recurrent funding levels for the third-level education sector. The HEA achieved and surpassed the targeted staff reductions set out in the first Employment Control Framework, which expired in December 2010. The extensive nature of these cuts highlights the seriousness of the crisis that is now facing Irish universities.

Despite the increase in staff-student ratios from one to 18 in 2008-9 to one to 24 in 2010-11, Irish academics still prioritise values and diverse approaches in teaching and learning. This is achieved within a quality-assurance system, legislatively-based and respected internationally. This increase in the staff student ratios does indicate a future erosion in research strength. The Government announced in March 2012 that it would refocus public research spending on 14 areas with the greatest potential for creating jobs and growth. This proposal was biased in favour of STEM – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – thus marginalising arts and humanities.

High-quality information and feedback for national and international students is necessary and robust quality assurance is essential. Rankings, however, are presented as value-free, objective assessments when, in many cases they are neither. Irish universities have absorbed serious funding cuts while maintaining acceptable levels of excellence and quality as measured by existing rankings. It is regrettable that two of our universities felt obliged to pursue enhanced star rating for a one-time audit fee of $9,850 (€7,487) and an annual license fee of $6,850 (€5,207) from QS World University Rankings. This was justified as necessary to attract foreign students and so enhance the institutions’ fee income.

When, in an extended recessionary period, major policy decisions concerning university education are based almost exclusively on reduced resourcing for the sector, the outlook for growth and development is bleak, for the universities themselves and for the higher education sector where they are located. Our students and our society deserves better than this.

Dr Marie Clarke lectures at the school of education in UCD and is outgoing president of the Irish Federation of University Teachers

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