Funding third level education


In what may be one of his final acts as Minister for Education before a Cabinet reshuffle in the autumn, Ruairi Quinn has set up a working group to develop a “future funding policy for higher education”. The aim, he says, is not just to produce another report but also to spark a public debate about the value of the sector.

By delaying this long in creating a sustainable funding model for third level education, Ireland can at least learn from the mistakes of other countries. In the US, some economists now speak of a “higher education bubble” so great is the level of student debt heaped on young shoulders. In the UK, the introduction of price competition has led to higher tuition fees on average, with well in excess of half of the institutions charging the maximum permitted of £9,000 per annum.

Irish third level institutions are continuing to perform at a high standard internationally but, as the Higher Education Authority’s “System Performance” report shows, there is a financial hole which can’t be plugged by the student registration fee – a charge which hits €3,000 next year. Between 2008 and 2014, total income per student declined by 22 per cent, while the staff-student ratio rose by a quarter from 1:16 to 1:20.

These things matter not only to the quality of education but also to the rankings of Irish institutions in global league tables, which can influence a mobile generation deciding where in the world to study.

The financial challenge here is exacerbated by demographics. Ireland’s relatively young population means more college places need to be created, and fast. Maintaining the current third level participation rate requires that the number of full-time new entrants to the system must grow by at least 25 per cent by 2030.

There are two fundamental questions underlying the debate: what is higher education for? And to what extent is it an entitlement? If college is simply to prepare young people for higher paid jobs, then perhaps both students themselves and private industry should be footing more of the bill.

But if it is to benefit society as a whole by transmitting curiosity and promoting active citizenship, for example, then arguably the state should pay more. Either way, it is legitimate for the state to ask what will students give back for the investment it makes in them.

The last thing Irish society needs is political point scoring over the issue, and here a different lesson could be learnt from the UK. In 1997, the Dearing report on reforming higher education drew cross-party support from the Conservatives and Labour. Although political temperatures rose over the issue as time went on, the tacit agreement of the two parties at that time not to make false promises to the electorate would be a lead to follow.

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