University rankings: Bruton insists funding hinges on reform

Colleges pitch for resources as standings tumble, but Minister notes need for vision

University rankings: A student loan scheme has been mooted, but it would be a political minefield. Photographs: Getty Images

University rankings: A student loan scheme has been mooted, but it would be a political minefield. Photographs: Getty Images

 

To govern is to choose, and many of the choices are about money. In the coming weeks, as the minority Government gears up to agree (perhaps) and deliver its first budget, groups, sectors and institutions seeking favour in the budget will be making public and private appeals to the decision-makers for priority.

Yesterday it was the turn of the universities. Displaying a capacity for turning weakness into strength, university heads and their allies used news of their tumble down the world rankings to argue that their descent was evidence of chronic underfunding, and warn that unless extra cash was made available to them, they would continue to decline in importance and achievement. It was a nifty piece of political judo.

Stout case

In fairness to the universities, they have a pretty stout case, having suffered more than most in the last eight years. Politically, third-level funding is an easy target. Many university departments are fairly creaking with students. Third level needs more money if it is to do the things that the State has always required it to do, even if tales of mismanagement are legion throughout the sector.

The universities’ problem is that they are in competition for funding with much more politically sensitive areas. Crammed primary schools, heaving emergency units, long housing lists. And the rest. The universities have their work cut out, whatever the strength of their case.

The first thing any lobby group needs to do is to convince their representative at the cabinet table to make their case for them. Minister for Education Richard Bruton is convinced of the need for extra investment in third level but he wants it done on his terms.His priorities, according to sources are “skills, research and disadvantage” – producing graduates with the skills that industry and society needs, funding world-class research and using the higher education system to promote social mobility.

Political minefield

Any university heads coming into his office would be advised to have a lively programme for promoting access among underprivileged students in their pocket.

Bruton will also have to figure out how exactly he wants to find additional resources for the third-level sector. A report produced by Peter Cassells in July laid out options for increasing funding – essentially a choice of how much the State wishes to invest, and how much should be paid by students.

A student loan scheme has been mooted, but it would be a political minefield. Not surprisingly, Bruton wants to kick that particular hot potato into the Oireachtas education committee.

Yesterday, Bruton – who was attending an event at a community centre in Darndale – stressed the need for a long-term solution. “We don’t have the option of doing nothing about the long-term funding of our higher education system,” Bruton said. “We do need to get a political long-term vision for this.”

For now, though, there is no clarity on what that vision might be.