We must work together to solve third level crises


LEFTFIELD:IRISH HIGHER Education is at a crossroads. Successive budget cuts and the wider economic climate have impacted massively, not only on academic standards, but also on the entire student experience. Student fees have increased again, job prospects are bleak and many final year students are accepting emigration as a fait accompli.

So what does this all mean for the future of our higher education system and its graduates?

While some may question the validity of the University World Rankings, the recent news that no Irish university has made the top 100 does speak volumes. Academic standards have undoubtedly fallen. Student services are also taking a hit, and students are feeling the effects.

The trends in the sector are extremely worrying. Rankings are falling, staff morale is low, and students are genuinely struggling to get by financially. The mood has only been exacerbated by the recent Government decision to remove all financial supports for postgraduates.

Yes, we are all painfully aware that cutbacks need to be made. However, we must recognise that the quality of our higher education system is one of the key assets we possess as a country. Should the cuts continue, we are in grave danger of losing our status as a nation that produces world-class graduates.

What can we do to tackle the under-funding of the sector with such limited resources? Today’s vote at the annual Congress of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) could help shape the future of the sector. For the first time ever, students will vote on their preferred option for third level funding.

The choices are clear: a graduate tax model, a student loan scheme, the return of up-front fees, the current “free fees” policy or continuing increases in the student contribution (now €2,250). Many students, including USI president Gary Redmond and this writer believe that a “study now, pay later” funding model would provide less of a barrier to higher education than the current system – and it could help to address the funding crisis.

Aside from funding issues, many students also question whether the limited resources that we do have are being allocated wisely. The Croke Park Agreement states that there can be no further reduction in the pay of university staff until 2014. Currently, up to 80 per cent of any college budget is absorbed in pay and pension costs. This means that the non-pay elements in the budget – like student services – have had to take the pain.

Surprisingly, this is happening while our academics maintain significantly higher levels of pay than their British counterparts. Furthermore, the recruitment freeze in the sector is making life even more difficult for recent graduates in search of work. I recognise the fantastic work being done by our academic community under increasingly difficult circumstances, but Croke Park is undeniably damaging the sector – and this decline will continue unless it is renegotiated.

The Government needs to take the initiative and bring the unions back to the negotiation table in order to find a fair solution for students and recent graduates, not just staff already working in the system.

With the student movement balloting its members for the first time on whether they would consider a funding alternative, we could be entering a defining few weeks for Irish higher education. Students are showing a willingness to engage constructively in order to preserve the future of our higher education system.

The least we should expect from Government, our lecturers and their unions is the same commitment to address the myriad issues threatening the sector.

Pat de Brún is president of UCD Students’ Union Students are showing a willingness to engage constructively in order to preserve the future of our higher education system