Funding the universities


THE UNIVERSITIES have responded with understandable dismay to the latest round of Government cutbacks. The Minister for Education, Batt O'Keeffe, is seeking a 3 per cent cut in payroll costs. In response, the universities are threatening a range of measures, including cutbacks in the range and number of courses on offer to students. In truth, they have little other option.

As one senior figure acknowledged last week, the notion that the universities can absorb this latest cutback without any impact on student and academic services is ludicrous. The colleges are already mired in a deepening financial crisis, a majority are running a substantial budget deficit year on year. Earlier this year, the UCD president, Dr Hugh Brady and the Provost of TCD, Dr John Hegarty, joined forces to highlight the scale of the funding crisis. They warned of the potential risk to the Republic's global competitiveness but the Government appears oblivious; while primary and second level have been exempted from the cutbacks, the third-level sector has been asked to accept cuts.

It is important to put all of this in context. University presidents are not just another vested interest group railing against cutbacks. The Government itself has identified the third-level sector as a key engine of economic growth. Over the course of the National Development Plan (2007-2013) billions of euro are being invested in the Programme for Research in Third Level (PRTLI) and the Strategy for Science, Technology and Innovation (SSTI). The Government is expected shortly to unveil funding of €400 million for the sector under the latest PRTLI cycle.

But all this support for research and innovation does not obviate the need for a consistent and sustainable level of current funding. The universities are working on core grant levels which are no longer sustainable. Already, the infrastructure in many of our colleges is creaking under the strain. Maintenance and essential works have been cut back; students are often required to work in outdated buildings, while academic supports are some distance from the levels taken for granted in other EU states. Ironically, the surge in research activity is placing still greater strain on the system as the existing infrastructure struggles to cope.

All of this represents a classic failure of joined-up thinking by the State. The Government wants the universities to be world class and cutting edge; it rolls out expansive research programmes, but fails to provide essential day-to-day funding.

It is to be hoped that the promised National Strategy for Higher Education, due to be unveiled in the autumn, will bring some clarity. The strategy must examine how a sustainable level of core funding can be put in place for our universities - with or without the return of college tuition fees. The current situation where there is a lack of consistent support is unsustainable. It is known that the university presidents are reluctant to cut back on courses and programmes. But in this case they may have little alternative. It may be time to concentrate minds in the Department of Education.