Is big business the answer to the third-level funding crisis?

Some academics worry that colleges are increasingly reliant on industry support

After nearly a decade of spending cuts, rising student numbers and falling numbers of academic staff, the higher education sector is under acute pressure. Photograph: Jason Lee/Reuters

After nearly a decade of spending cuts, rising student numbers and falling numbers of academic staff, the higher education sector is under acute pressure. Photograph: Jason Lee/Reuters

 

Last year the computer chip giant Intel announced a sponsorship and mentoring programme for master’s students at University College Dublin. Science and maths students will be selected to receive ongoing support and assistance from the company to learn key skills that are directly aligned to the needs of industry.

To some, it is the future of higher education: business and educational institutions working hand-in-glove to ensure graduates have the knowledge and skills needed to thrive in the workplace.

To others, however, it is another worrying harbinger of how colleges are increasingly reliant on big business to support their teaching and research.

The debate will likely be rekindled this week, when the Government commences a dialogue with employers aimed at securing additional funding for the country’s creaking third-level institutions.

After nearly a decade of spending cuts, rising student numbers and falling numbers of academic staff, the higher education sector is under acute pressure.

Student loans

An expert group on the future funding of higher education reported last year that the funding system was “ simply not fit for purpose”.

The Cassells report lists three main options to fund the system, but most acknowledge that only one – a student loan scheme – is a realistic way of providing the funding needed in the medium term. This would involve greater State funding, more contributions from students, and a higher level of financing from industry.

The Government now seems to be embarking on the third strand: greater contributions from industry.

At present, employers pay about €360 million a year into a National Training Fund through a payroll levy. However, just a fraction of this goes to higher education.

Employers’ group Ibec has previously signalled that it would support a more “structured” approach to supporting programmes in areas of skills demand, and that more effective use of the training fund should be explored.

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A new “employer-exchequer investment mechanism” is likely to explore these areas. Minister for Education Richard Bruton has previously signalled that industry should contribute more in return for courses that meet skills needs.

There are plenty of academics, though, concerned that the demands of the market are overtaking their academic missions.

Kathleen Lynch, professor of equality studies at UCD, says universities are increasingly under pressure to change – from being independent centres of critical scholarship to “service-delivery operations for the market economy”.

In contrast, UCD president Andrew Deeks points out that “mutually beneficial” partnerships with firms such as Intel represent a tiny proportion of the university’s programmes. These industry-sponsored initiatives are generally at master’s level and may involve research link-ups, he says. It is a much different story at undergraduate level, where its biggest programme is general entry arts.

Deeks acknowledges that UCD regularly seeks the advice of industry to ensure its graduates have the skills relevant to the modern workplace. But he says this is just an advisory role: “We retain academic control and ensure they are rigorous and sound, and give students a set of skills which benefit them.”

Business perspective

As far as Ibec is concerned, business is not a self-interested “barbarian at the gates” of higher education seeking a narrow set of skills.

“Providing a business perspective should not be confused with having a utilitarian view of education,” says Tony Donohoe, Ibec’s head of education and social policy. “We also need a broader view of education that relates to the development of individuals as independent and creative thinkers, and to the promotion of active citizenship and support for ethical values.”

He says the goals of satisfying the needs of enterprise and developing well-rounded, ethical and culturally literate citizens are not mutually exclusive; in fact, they are closely aligned.

“We might have a less elegant language around these attributes – ‘employability’, ‘entrepreneurial skills’ or ‘thinking outside the box’ – but they reflect traditional principles and values of learning,” he says.

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