Voters face stark choices when it comes to higher education

Students are being short-changed by a system that won’t or can’t invest in their future

Political failure to prepare adequately for a significant expansion in student numbers at third level will come at a cost to families, society and ultimately to the economy. Photograph: iStock

Political failure to prepare adequately for a significant expansion in student numbers at third level will come at a cost to families, society and ultimately to the economy. Photograph: iStock

 

Earlier this week, Leaving Certificate students met the CAO deadline to submit their course preferences for September. Later this week, voters will fill in their preferences for who will make up the next government.

The first exercise will largely determine the individual lives of many secondary school leavers while the second exercise will help shape the future of Ireland’s economy and society.

The two events are not unrelated. Higher-education institutions are key to the country’s economic and social development. And the future of the same institutions is partly in the hands of politicians now looking for votes. Those politicians will have the power to make critical improvements in higher education and the research ecosystem. But they can also make mistakes, or ignore growing problems, that will have slow but far-reaching effects on third-level institutions and society as a whole.

Voters face stark choices when it comes to higher education. Some parties want to abolish fees. Some want to reduce university autonomy. Some want more universities or a separate ministry for higher education and research. Others have committed to increasing investment in teaching, research and building programmes.

In short, the outcome of Saturday’s vote could have a significant impact on our third-level institutions.

Over the past few years, I have detected a growing impatience among students, their parents and the general public about the manner in which our educational/research and political systems operate. People are beginning to realise that students are being short-changed by a system that won’t or can’t invest in their future.

“Be radical or redundant” is an old slogan that applies as much to higher education and research as to politicians as they come to terms with a society where change is ricocheting around every aspect of life, work and the environment.

Students naturally want a qualification that prepares them for work but they want much more. They want higher education and research to address the bigger challenges facing society. The open revolt by young people against the lethargic response to climate change is forcing a response from the political establishment worldwide.

A few years ago, the idea of a young Swedish activist berating political and business leaders at their annual Davos summit was unthinkable. But young people rightly want more. They are also increasingly conscious of the need to deal with issues such as fossil fuels, societal inequalities, climate justice, racism, plastic in the food chain or housing shortages.

Preparing our young people for successful careers and addressing global challenges cannot be done on the cheap. The financial health of universities and other third-level institutions should be a major political priority but it’s not.

The system is in crisis

The system is in crisis but you wouldn’t know it because there is no equivalent of a daily trolley count or waiting lists to dominate the headlines. The busy public gets a passing glimpse of the extent of the problem when the latest world rankings shows Irish universities have fallen once again, despite their best efforts to keep up with their better-financed competitors.

The Government responds by saying we are pumping an extra €300 million into the system. Welcome as that money is, it’s earmarked for the acquisition of skills as part of the Human Capital Initiative, or HCI. Even the acronym speaks volumes about the kind of instrumentalist thinking becoming common in higher education these days.

We all agree that universities have to prepare their students for a rapidly changing work environment. The third-level sector is proud of its role in helping to develop the successful knowledge-based economy that has put Ireland ahead of the curve.

The national plans spearheaded by Trinity for the Grand Canal Innovation District and a multi-university research centre on a new campus are further evidence of our collective commitment to help Ireland stay ahead. We recognise we are a small open, global economy and that talent is mobile.

But universities are much more than an aid to industry. Political parties need a vision that sees all students realising their potential in whatever sphere they choose; whether it’s the humanities, medicine, law, business, the arts, engineering or the sciences. The universities also want a research system that engages in blue-sky thinking driven by a passion for discovery and not one forced to focus on servicing the needs of industry.

Unresolved funding issue

However, this is impossible with an unresolved funding issue that is becoming more critical as student numbers continue to rise. According to the Department of Education’s own figures, third-level student numbers increased by a third in the 10 years from 2007 to 183,642.

On current trends, that total will rise to 222,514 by the end of this decade. This will mean almost 39,000 more students in the system or a 21 per cent increase over the 2017 full-time numbers. This is the great elephant in the higher-education room and serious political parties contesting this election must address this issue of how to educate increased numbers in a world-class higher-education system. Political failure to prepare adequately for this very significant expansion will come at a cost to individual families, to society and ultimately to the economy.

To do this, we need consensus which has been missing in recent years as policies pit students against educators. There is political talk of a Citizens Assembly for education which would have substantial involvement of young people. I would welcome it as long as it had a brief to reach conclusions quickly.

As well as discussing other issues, an assembly could be a great opportunity to agree a vision for the kind of higher-education system we want. It could also agree to give our research ecosystem and higher education the greater political and funding priority needed for Ireland’s prosperity into the future.

Patrick Prendergast is provost of Trinity College Dublin and current chairperson of the Irish Universities Association