Dick Ahlstrom: Caretaker ministers must not deflect higher education

Staffing numbers are down while students numbers are up, and intervention is needed

Members of ASTI are planning major industrial action over a range of issues. Photograph: Cyril Byrne

Members of ASTI are planning major industrial action over a range of issues. Photograph: Cyril Byrne


So here we sit 10 days after the election and the country is being run by a caretaker government. Our political staff are talking about Easter before we might have a working Dáil, or not, based on how long the various parties feel they need to posture and bob and weave.

In the mean time the country’s education system looks set to fall apart and requires urgent attention. The Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland is preparing to organise major industrial action over a range of issues.

The Institute of Technology lecturers represented by the Teachers’ Union of Ireland were on strike for a day back in January. They are ready to repeat unless the Government (expensive caretakers) comes up with more funding to prevent the institutes from imploding due to rising student numbers and declining lecturer count.

Morality play

That certainly will make for an enduring government when it forms under those time pressures. Not.

But really the expensive caretakers don’t have all that much time to waste if they are to intervene to save the higher education system and state enterprise policy.

A Royal Irish Academy Advice Paper released last week described it in stark terms as “the crisis context for higher education and research in Ireland”.

It arises as the result of a seminar at the Academy last year that considered the question: “Does Ireland need a Minister for Higher Education and Research?”

The paper discusses a range of options from changing nothing to adopting other models. The paper is unambiguous, however, about what we need and declares in answer to the question an emphatic “Yes”. But really the story is better told through numbers which help explain the crisis aspect of this.

Student numbers

Higher Education Authority

If you think this is the whingers at it again, then consider this. The real state expenditure per student at second level, as measured in 2013, is now higher than for students at third level. In 2003, long before the crash, real expenditure for the second level was about 75 per cent of what was spent on third-level students.

Meanwhile the number of academic and support staff in the sector has fallen by 2,000, dropping from 19,000 in 2008 to 17,000 by 2014.

These are real numbers and there are people attached to them. And a lot of them were doing research, work that helped convince many multinational companies to come and invest in Ireland if they wanted to be in the best little country to do research.

That is why the academy report describes this as a crisis. And Peter Cassells, who chairs the expert group looking at long-term options on funding for third-level education, described the current funding arrangements in Ireland as “unsustainable”.

The academy based its report on contributions made at the meeting in 2015, so it is not just a solo run. The report’s view is that the current model for higher education here is “inefficient and ineffective” and urgency should figure in the delivery of a new model.

“Leading-edge research is best conducted within a research-intensive, autonomous higher education environment and an effective research strategy is dependent on a well-resourced higher education sector. A fragmented higher education and research governance model may curtail the quality and vitality of Ireland’s research system,” the paper warns.

It plumps for the real deal and not a half-way measure. It wants to see the incoming government appoint a minister for higher education and research with Cabinet-level access.

Unfortunately the expensive caretakers won’t be able to make a decision on the issue or will kick the can down the road for another day. But that would be a dangerous move.

We could start to see a greater willingness on the part of our best scientists to advance their careers and reputations in other countries. And it is frightening to contemplate what continued under-funding for the third level is going to do to foreign direct investment.