Warning over lack of funding at third level

 

IRELAND COULD face an escalating financial crisis if funding for high-quality education is not secured, the provost-elect of Trinity College Dublin has warned.

Patrick Prendergast, professor of bioengineering at Trinity, said university standards must be defended for the benefit of individual students and the country as a whole.

Speaking at a conference yesterday on issues facing universities in the 21st Century, he said many of his colleagues were buried beneath significantly higher workloads as student numbers increase while staff levels remain stagnant.

Trinity’s Spanish department was run by a staff of five in 1980. More than 30 years later, student numbers have increased four-fold, but the department is still run by five staff, he said.

“Some people do not believe that quality is reducing. In the past six months, I have visited the offices of hundreds of university lecturers and staff that are overworked and overstressed, trying to maintain high standards,” he said.

Prof Prendergast was among eight speakers at the University Challenged conference organised by the school of education at UCC.

Chaired by Prof Kathy Hall, head of the UCC school of education, speakers included: Marian Coy, co-author of the Hunt report (for the future of Irish Universities); Ned Costello, chief executive of Irish Universities Association; and Prof Kathleen Lynch, chair of Equality Studies at UCD.

Prof Prendergast told 150 delegates at the conference that Ireland’s financial and social crisis and its massive inter-generational debt is the singularly most important element to change how education evolves.

The crisis presents less funding for higher education and the need for universities to diversify toward non-exchequer funding means.

A second consequence, according to Prof Prendergast, is the notion that university education is part of an inefficient and overly costly system.

“It is lodged firmly in the public mind. The economic disaster has caused serious questioning of public sector and higher education education as a public good,” he said.

He attributed rising costs to government-mandated salary hikes, in line with the private sector.

Regulations and bureaucracy have become a hindrance to universities utilising resources to their best effect – a factor that is affecting Irish education systems as a whole, Prof Prendergast said.

“If we don’t find a way to maintain high-quality further education we could set up a worse financial crisis than we have at the moment. We should have the courage to stand up for higher education and its benefits for each student,” he added.

The Hunt report forecasts increased numbers of students entering university, but fails to set out how this will be funded.

“This is the great conundrum. The education of students requires resources, we must face up to the need for increased non-exchequer funding,” he said.

Dr Stephen O’Brien, of the school of education at UCC, said symbolic links between education and the economy are unambiguous in the State’s habitual use of the phrase “smart economy”.

At European level, universities have been identified as serving Europe’s competitive global expansion through research, education and innovation, he added.

“Universities are seen as valued research and pedagogical environments that produce, accredit and transmit innovative knowledge, ultimately serving the expansion of Europe’s global status,” Dr O’Brien said.