Unions concerned by plan to give business bigger say in university funding

Industry to have central role in oversight of how €300m education fund is spent

Ictu has written to Minister for Education Joe McHugh seeking a meeting to raise concerns

Ictu has written to Minister for Education Joe McHugh seeking a meeting to raise concerns


Trade unions are seeking an urgent meeting with the Minister for Education to raise “grave concerns” over plans to give big business a greater say in where hundreds of millions of euro in university investment will be spent.

It follows an Irish Times report which said a new “oversight arrangement” is to be established which will facilitate employers having a greater say in the strategic direction of €300 million in education spending.

The Government last October announced details of a five-year “human capital initiative” for higher and further education. This funding will be drawn from a large surplus which has accumulated in the National Training Fund, which is resourced from a levy on employers.

The levy currently amounts to 0.8 per cent of reckonable earnings of most insured workers. It is collected as part of employers’ PRSI, and there are plans to increase this rate to 1 per cent.

Patricia King, general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trade Unions (Ictu) has written to Minister for Education Joe McHugh in recent days warning that such a move would “erode academic freedom”.

“It is a worrying development that the previous minister Richard Bruton appears so willing to trade a greater say for employers in the strategic direction of policy and investment in return for this modest increase,” she wrote.

“Education policy and decision-making must continue to be autonomous and unconstrained of employers’ influence.”

She added: “The ever increasing emphasis on the higher education and further education and training sectors to prioritise the immediate needs of industry and business, above all else, not only erodes academic freedom; such a policy approach is out of step with the times.

Ms King said rapid technological development and multiple career changes over longer working lives means today’s students, and tomorrow’s workers, require a “broader set of transferable skills and competencies if they are to achieve their full potential”.

Directly relevant

In a statement, Ictu social policy officer, Dr Laura Bambrick added that the €300 million in funding cannot be confined to initiatives directly relevant to the needs of employers.

“Upskilling and reskilling opportunities must be made available for all workers, especially workers at risk of displacement from technology, Brexit and the transition to a low carbon economy,” she said.

“As we have seen in recent weeks, workers in carbon heavy sectors face significant employment challenges.”

However, employers group Ibec has said the ring-fenced fund is a good idea and insisted industry and academia share the same key goals.

“Employers want to ensure we are preparing people for a constantly changing world and producing well-educated, well-rounded, resilient citizens,” said Tony Donohoe, Ibec’s head of education and social policy.

“Educationalists share the same aims, though they might use slightly different language, like the importance of a holistic education or transferable skills.”

The broad aims of the €300 million fund, according to internal records, will include meeting future skills needs of the economy; addition investment in higher education further education and training; responding to Brexit and other challenges; and addressing skills needs at a regional level.