Universities seek €234m funding injection in Budget 2019

Serious quality issues at third-level exist from decades of underfunding, IUA says

Ireland’s universities are seeking a substantial increase in funding to counteract the impact of cuts to the higher education sector over the past decade.

The universities are seeking a total increase in expenditure of €234 million to address capital and core funding requirements which they say are “urgently required”.

In a submission to the Government, the Irish Universities Association (IUA) said Budget 2019 should be used to "urgently address the underlying quality issues arising from a decade of underfunding as well as building capacity to absorb the significant growth in student numbers".

Jim Miley, the association's director general, said: "We are seeking an increase of €130 million in core current funding and €104 million in essential capital upgrades in 2019. State funding per student is now half of what it was 10 years ago."

Linking the decline in funding to a fall in international standing – noting that six out of eight Irish top-ranked colleges recently fell down the rankings – Mr Miley said the sector cannot continue to deliver without politicians addressing the funding challenge.

“Already this year, we have seen a decline in our position in international ranking systems. Without significant additional investment, universities cannot enhance their efforts to improve access and better respond to skills needs across the economy.”

Greater autonomy

The association is also proposing a greater level of autonomy for the country’s universities. It is seeking more flexibility than is currently offered by the Employment Control Framework, a pay-related measure introduced by the government during the recession in an attempt to bring public spending into line with revenue.

According to the submission, the framework should be “set aside” as such measures “stifle the capacity of universities to respond flexibly to the needs of the economy and the workforce and compete effectively in the international higher education market”.

Under existing rules, salaries for public sector employees are capped and individuals may not earn more than the Taoiseach’s annual €190,000 salary. There are some exceptions and The Irish Times recently reported that universities have received Government approval to recruit top academics on salaries of up to €337,000 a year.

The submission calls on the Government to “take the first step” in Budget 2019 and “restore greater autonomy to universities in line with national higher education policy, especially in relation to human resource functions.”

Cassells Report

The pre-budget submission points to the Peter Cassells 2016 report which outlined three primary options for the funding of third-level education in Ireland, including the return of fees through a student loan system.

While the Government has yet to decide which option to take, Minister of State for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor said in April that the issue of student loans is “off the table” while the current administration is in office.

Mr Miley said universities have a crucial role in producing the talent pool for the growing knowledge economy. "The Cassells Report provided an expertly researched and presented roadmap. We are calling on politicians across the Oireachtas to stop kicking the can down the road and to address the problem now.

“Failure to do so will damage students’ prospects and threaten the future competitiveness of the economy”

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education and Skills said the Government has begun a "significant" investment programme in higher education, with €100 million more being invested in 2018 than was available two years ago.

She said the Oireachtas Committee on Education asked the department in January to carry out a full economic analysis of each of the options put forward by the Cassells Report.

“The Department of Education is currently considering the most appropriate means of undertaking the economic examination of each of the proposed policy options presented in the report to assist the committee and to ensure that a sustainable funding model for higher education is developed to support the realisation of the economy’s growth potential.”

Éanna Ó Caollaí

Éanna Ó Caollaí

Éanna Ó Caollaí is an Irish Times journalist and editor of the Irish Times Student Hub