Let’s not learn lesson on third-level the hard way

Quality of our university system at risk of being sacrificed on altar of austerity

Higher education costs, but higher education also pays. International comparative data from the OECD shows that more education leads to improved employment chances and boosts financial returns over an individual’s lifetime. This is especially true in Ireland. According to the OECD, over the course of their working life a person with a higher education qualification will earn €275,500 more on average than someone without. But these returns are not limited to the individual. Higher education also benefits the State, with Government coffers better off to the tune of €171,500 for every individual who graduates from third-level education.

At a time when we are dealing with a national employment crisis, the positive impact of higher education is also striking. A person with a Leaving Certificate currently has a one in seven chance of becoming unemployed. For those with higher education, this drops to one in 17.

Despite this backdrop of positive outcomes, exchequer core funding for higher education was cut by almost a third between 2008 and 2014. While some of this fall was offset by increased student charges and reductions in remuneration, it has had a very real impact on the student experience. Most obviously, it has worsened student:staff ratios and, partly as a consequence, had a negative impact on university standings in the international rankings. The latter, though flawed in many respects, do affect Ireland’s international reputation and competitiveness.

The good news is that through the dedication and hard work of both front and backline staff in the universities, quality, although at risk, has been maintained. This is reflected in graduate employment rates, growing international student numbers, and the fact that the substantial majority of employers when independently surveyed say they are satisfied with the quality of graduates.


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acrifice too far The

collapse in our economy has necessitated sacrifices on the part of all. The universities understand this fully. However, there is a real danger that the quality of our university system could be sacrificed on the altar of austerity. Current indications are that further cuts in core funding are in prospect and it has been signposted that a further €250 increase in the student charge will be siphoned off by the exchequer. In effect, students will pay the State more, but they will get less. These policies are simply not sustainable.

As the sails of growth begin to unfurl, Ireland faces critical choices about how higher education is funded and regulated. It is for these reasons that in Dublin today, a major IUA symposium: 21st Century Universities – Performance and Sustainability will hear from a range of global experts on the challenges facing higher education and hone in on the issues Ireland must confront if our universities are to remain competitive. These can be distilled to three: scale/quality, funding and regulation.

When it comes to scale, Ireland, already has high levels of participation in higher education. At the same time there is a strong consensus on the desire for quality. Projections from the Department of Education and Skills show a continuing increase in demand, with numbers set to rise from 129,564 in 2009 to 146,834 in 2016. As to the rationale for increasing graduate intake, recent Solas projections suggest that continuing recovery could even result in an excess of employer demand over supply.

All of this points inexorably towards resourcing. Meeting demand while also achieving the desired quality requires a national investment strategy. Given the demonstrable returns to graduates and the economy, that strategy must encompass both public and private funding. As a first step, the current policy of disinvestment must be arrested. We can then plan for the future and look at issues such as how a sustainable fee regime can be implemented. It is welcome that the Minister for Education has established a new committee in this area. However, the time frame (extending to some 18 months before a final report is expected) fails to recognise the urgency of the issue.

Central control

If individuals and the State are being asked to invest more in higher education, questions of regulation inevitably arise. There have been positive developments. The new Performance Compacts agreed between the institutions and the HEA, and the associated system performance report, bring increased visibility to what higher education is promising and delivering. On the flipside, comparative international evidence to be presented at the symposium shows a worrying trend in Ireland towards increased central controls, particularly on human resources.

US higher education management expert Aims McGuinness says in his paper: “the lesson learned from both the US and Ireland is that top-down mandates and regulation have a limited – if not negative – impact on fundamental change within academic institutions. It is essential to establish strategic goals for what the system is to achieve and then create a policy environment and framework for bottom-up change at the institutional level to determine how those goals are to be achieved.”

International experts tell us higher education is delivering for Ireland and has the potential to achieve even more, provided it is sustainably funded and sensibly regulated. It is a potential we cannot afford to squander.

Ned Costello is chief executive of the Irish Universities Association