The abolition of fees for third level was a regressive step

Opinion: We need to change the way our universities raise money, and fees are a necessary part of the equation

Photograph: Thinkstock

Photograph: Thinkstock


Right now we are looking at a serious underfunding of third- level colleges – a shortfall in the region of €1 billion.

This figure, provided by a new Royal Irish Academy advice paper, Future Funding of Higher Education in Ireland, chaired by John Hegarty, must focus the mind and the Government on the risks facing our third-level institutions and their global ranking.

This issue does not just affect students, although it has a direct impact on them; it has serious implications for Ireland as a country.

Our third-level funding crisis is part of a global trend, in the same way that our financial crisis was part of a global collapse. This is not a unique issue, but is part of an international development, one that we need to address swiftly.

The Royal Irish Academy report highlights further issues that affect teaching quality and global rankings. By 2030, demand is projected to increase by 30 per cent.

Combine this with an increase in our student-teacher ratio, from 16:1 to 20:1, and we will see huge stresses placed upon our already creaking university system.

These statistics feed into rankings, which will depress our position on a global basis and reduce, or at least discourage, overseas students. Both issues go directly to the bottom line.

In tandem with these worrying developments, government funding has not just been reduced, it has been slashed. In the period 2008-2013, the public funding allocation was cut by 29 per cent, with no signs of abatement.

We desperately need principled, strong leadership to effect positive change in this area, something I believe can be done through the Seanad.

New funding model

So what do I think we can do about this? There are two clear steps that need to be taken.

The first is to move to a new composite funding model, in order to change the way our universities raise money.

Government funding is important, but it is not enough. Leadership teams in the universities are already looking at alternative ways to fund their institutions. There is no simple chequebook solution, but it is clear that a move to a composite funding model is required.

Funding Irish universities requires a spread of financial responsibility across State, institutions and students. The principal of consumers paying for their requirements is well-documented and we need to look at how to structure this.

Fees are a necessary part of the equation, and their abolition in 1995 did no one any favours. It was, simply, a regressive step.

This issue must also be examined in terms of the push to send all school leavers to university. For many young people, formal apprentices or similar programmes should be actively encouraged.

Quantitative vs qualitative

There is a strong case for transitioning from our current “quantitative” funding method, where funding is allocated on the basis of headcount alone, to a more “qualitative” one. Simply put, this will mean a better return on investment.

The other argument is that those institutions directly benefiting from our quality third-level education should contribute – by ensuring, for example, that corporations are encouraged to contribute.

Then there is the direct contribution of philanthropy, or planned giving. This source of funding is well-established in the United States and growing in popularity here.

At Trinity Business School we have secured philanthropic funding that underpins €70 million for a new business school.

We need to do this across other areas of excellence in our universities. The application of a business-like approach at senior management level of the institution is imperative to allow professors and students do what they do best: teach and learn.

More autonomy

The second step is quite simple: increased autonomy to those who manage our universities. As the percentage of overall government funding falls, government needs to loosen its overarching control.

It is important to university management to have the freedom to manage their institution, particularly when government support for universities is fast approaching only 35 per cent and consistently falling.

It is unrealistic to expect to raise funding from these other sources if absolute control of how it is spent rests with government.

  • Sean Melly is chairman of Trinity Business School and a candidate in the upcoming Seanad election
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