Tomorrow, some 4,000 institute of technology lecturers and researchers will take a day’s strike action over a range of critical issues within their sector.
This action is not being taken lightly, but the mandate is overwhelming: Teachers’ Union of Ireland members voted by 92 per cent to 8 per cent in favour of industrial action in a national ballot.
Tellingly, tomorrow’s action is fully supported by the Union of Students in Ireland. This should come as little surprise, as students, along with lecturers, have borne the brunt of the anti-education cutbacks of recent years – cutbacks that have created the current crisis in higher education.
During the withering austerity years , funding for the institute-of-technology sector was cut by 35 per cent.
Over the same period, student numbers rose a staggering 32 per cent, or 21,411 additional students, and lecturer numbers fell 9.5 per cent, or more than 500. This has had a direct, detrimental effect both on the quality of service to students and on the working conditions of academics.
Although the sharp increase in numbers participating in third-level education is most welcome, the abject failure of government to provide the necessary funding and to maintain appropriate staffing levels is having a profoundly negative impact on the student experience of higher education.
For example, students now experience larger class sizes, less access to laboratories and libraries and sharp cuts to tutorials and other student supports.
The pupil-teacher ratio metric links the number of teachers at second level to the number of students, but no such linkage exists at third level, with the result that staffing has been in free fall.
The damage to institutional reputation has been significant, both nationally and internationally.
Inevitably, given the numbers, lecturer workload has increased significantly and is now at intolerable, unsustainable levels. As a result of cutbacks and rationalisation measures, the morale of lecturing and research staff has been severely damaged.
The precarious employment status of many is an additional blight on the sector. A sizeable proportion of academic staff suffer income poverty as a result of low hours and insecure employment.
It is completely unacceptable that the expert group tasked with reporting on this dire situation as part of the Haddington Road Agreement has not yet produced its recommendations.
Since their establishment less than 50 years ago, the institutes of technology (previously regional technical colleges) have made an enormous contribution to social, economic and cultural development. But this success is being dangerously and consistently undermined by short- sighted, steep and, frankly, stupid austerity cuts.
Throughout this crisis, the statutory funding agency, the Higher Education Authority, has shown itself to be quite unfit for purpose. It has been complicit in this wilful destruction of an essential national resource.
This, let us not forget, is the agency that believes that moving to a technological universities model can be – must be – achieved on a shoestring, that more can endlessly be done with less and that water can be drawn from a well that is dry.
In this context of a sector starved of necessary funding and staffing, the decision of government, egged on by a myopic and uncompromising HEA, to press ahead with the Technological Universities Bill is foolhardy.
The intention to make such a significant change without a full commitment to proper resourcing is grossly ill-advised. As well, the requirement that institutes of technology must merge before they can apply for technological university status appears to be more related to cost-saving than to any academic considerations based on the schools’ missions, values and ethos.
As a result of the Bill, there will also be a real risk of a dramatic reduction in the regional provision of academic programmes. Regional cities and towns up and down the country will lose out. The capacity to access third level at or near one’s home will be curtailed. The gravitational pull of larger institutions in larger urban areas will increase.
Without proper resourcing – that is, funding and staffing – colleges in Letterkenny, Sligo, Athlone, Dundalk, Tralee, Carlow, Tallaght and Blanchardstown will suffer. And if they suffer, so too will the communities they are based in, the economies they support and the social and cultural needs they serve.
TUI members will be balloted in the coming weeks on engagement in a complementary campaign of industrial action on these important matters. We have urged the Department of Education to engage with us. We are seeking a sustainable, practical, manageable resolution.
Unlike those who peddle the fiction that more can endlessly be done with less, we in the TUI do not believe in and are not disposed towards trusting in the miraculous. We prefer reality. Gerry Quinn is president of the Teachers' Union of Ireland