Contradiction between public policy and persistent underfunding laid bare


BACKGROUND:The Hunt report says education is the key to our future. But it raises serious questions about the sustainability of current funding arrangements

THE LONG-AWAITED Hunt report will finally be published next Tuesday. The report has had a painful birth. There have been reports of serious division among members of the group. At one stage last summer the entire draft report was extensively rewritten amid complaints from some that it was not up to scratch.

The final report presented to Cabinet recently is certainly sharper and more focused. But there is no arresting new Big Idea – and little that will surprise.

Many of its key recommendations – including the demand for a quantum leap in funding – echo the 2004 OECD report on higher education. That report has been drawing dust on the shelf since its publication. Will the Hunt report suffer a similar fate?

That said, the report is strong in highlighting the essential contradiction in public policy towards the higher education sector. The sector may be recognised by government as key to all our futures but it remains persistently underfunded – and it fails to get the kind of political attention it merits.

That is why Hunt would like to see the Minister for Education chairing a Cabinet committee on the sector and a beefed up role for the Higher Education Authority.

On funding, the report says we cannot expect the State alone to pick up the tab for future growth in the sector given “current budgetary constraints”.

It says new student contributions and a new student loan scheme will help – but only partially. The report is also looking to the colleges themselves to have a sharper commercial focus and to drive down costs through greater efficiencies.

But – even if all of this were achieved – it is clear the sector would still be well short of the additional funds (up to €500 million per year) needed to deliver a sustainable funding base.

Other key recommendations include:

* The Minister for Education should chair a Cabinet committee on higher education;

* Investment in RD should virtually double to 3 per cent of GDP;

* Continued expansion of student numbers should be contingent on the introduction of additional revenue streams and new ways of working;

* A new performance incentive system for colleges; those meeting them would be rewarded while those who fail could be penalised;

* New tighter, more transparent contracts should be introduced for academics and possibly performance-related pay;

* No new universities for Dublin, Cork and Waterford. Instead, institutes of technology should begin process of consolidation leading to possible redesignation as a technological university;

* The role of the Higher Education Authority should be strengthened and size of college governing authorities cut;

* A comprehensive review of the external examiner and grading systems, amid concerns about grade inflation;

* New contracts for university staff where there is currently “a lack of transparency regarding staff workloads and no specific provision on teaching hours”. In the institutes of technology this would specify a minimum number of hours to be delivered annually. All contracts should reflect “a much broader concept of the academic year and timetable.”;

* Greater collaboration between colleges and the establishment of regional clusters of excellence;

* Greater mobility of staff between higher education and the public and private sectors.

The report also makes a number of “student-friendly” proposals reflecting the input of group member Shane Kelly, the former president of the Union of Students in Ireland.

Hunt proposes a national survey system to capture anonymous feedback from students on academic performance. It also wants to end the practice whereby some senior academics absent themselves from teaching and focus on research. According to Hunt, research and teaching should enjoy parity of esteem in colleges. It also wants an end to discrimination against part-time students.