Industry must ramp up role in ‘funding’ of higher education

Bigger input required from employers to plug sector funding gap, conference told

The conference heard that funding “cuts were having most impact on those who are least equipped to deal with the fallout”. Photograph: Getty Images

The conference heard that funding “cuts were having most impact on those who are least equipped to deal with the fallout”. Photograph: Getty Images


Employers need to share the cost of running the higher education system in return from the benefits they get from Irish graduates, the chairman of Institutes of Technology Ireland has said.

Prof Ciarán Ó Catháin, who is president of Athlone IT while also heading the representative body, told a conference in Dublin on Wednesday that the three main beneficiaries of higher education were the State, students and industry.

Given the student contribution charge was already “quite expensive, especially for people from lower socio-economic groups” at €3,000 a year, both the State and industry need to step up their support.

In the case of business, “this could be done through adding to the existing training levy by specifically ear-marking such contributions for higher education. This would not only help third level, but it would help to offset some of the criticism of the low corporation tax rate”.

Describing the impact of the cuts in the sector, Prof Ó Catháin said: “Leaking roofs and windows are going unrepaired, paint peels from walls, computers grind slowly, struggling to run industry software.

“Were we another part of the education system, I would be tempted to suggest that we run bake sales or organise parish fetes as means of solving these problems. However, this is a situation far beyond the capacity of some iced cupcakes to repair.”

Also speaking at the “Dialogue on the Future Funding of Higher Education” at the Royal Irish Academy was Tom Boland, chief executive of the Higher Education Authority who said total funding per student had dropped by 22 per cent – from €11,000 to €9,000 between 2007-2008 and 2014-2015.

There was “some evidence of a reduction in quality”, including anecdotal reports that institutions are deciding “to reduce content, diversity and invaluable components like placements and practice-based learning”.

Of particular concern was the fact that about 40 per cent of space in the sector required “major repair” or “replacement”, with campuses having to close temporarily in some instances.

‘Flexibility in HR matters’

Mr Boland said the State could no longer justify “a policy of managed decline” for third level, although he too stressed the need for other funding options to the exchequer.

“The underdeveloped philanthropic activities of Irish institutions must also be ramped up, alongside a focus on commercial revenue generation wherever this is complimentary to their academic mission.

“Business and enterprise too need to step up and offer their contribution to the solution.

“Enablers will be needed to support such approaches, such as enhanced autonomy of institutions, tax measures and flexibility in HR matters,” he said.

Mr Boland acknowledged third-level institutions suffered from an image problem domestically, saying there was “a prevailing view, wrong in my view, among official Ireland of higher education leadership as arrogant.

“A strong sense of a sector that only begrudgingly implements national policies on pay and conditions, a sense fed by past scandals of unauthorised payments. A suspicion, only poorly addressed by the sector, that academics spend a lot of time in unproductive activity.”

He said: “Mindsets have to change, in government and in the wider public if we are to realise Ireland’s potential over the next 10 to 20 years.”

Prof Ó Catháin said the cuts were having most impact on those who are least equipped to deal with the fallout, citing counselling services in particular.

More than 10,000 students attended campus-based counselling services in the academic year 2013-2014, making it the largest psychologically based primary mental health care facility for young people in the State.

While the numbers of students attending such services has doubled since 2008, the ratio of staff to students has deteriorated from 1:3,800 to 1:5,000.

Prof Ó Catháin said “politicians are very adept at paying lip service to the importance of higher education”, describing how a parliamentary question earlier this year elicited details of the extent of cutbacks, including a 50 per cent drop in capital funding between 2010 and 2015.

“For me, however, the interesting thing is what happened as a result of that parliamentary question. After all, one assumes there was a rationale in asking it, or that there would have been a follow-through. Sadly, however, the question asked and the answer received made less impact within and without the Oireachtas than tales of savage seagulls.

“The wild birds, it seems, concern our parliamentarians far more than the fate of the 215,000 students currently in higher education.”