Fees may be key to future, says new TCD provost


THE QUALITY of Irish higher education faces a speedy and inexorable decline unless the funding crisis is addressed by introducing fees for those who can afford to pay, according to the provost of TCD.

In an interview with The Irish Times, Prof Patrick Prendergast also suggested the Government might single out science and technology courses for additional support, replacing the current system where all courses receive the same level of support from the exchequer. Instead of a blanket subsidy for all courses, the Government could be more interventionist, he suggested.

On the funding crisis, Prof Prendergast says TCD is operating on about only two-thirds of the budget available to comparable universities in the UK. The pressure on resources was cutting into the student experience, limiting one-on-one teaching and leading to overcrowded laboratory space, he said.

Prof Prendergast said his overall concern was that Ireland might not be able to deliver higher education that matches up to universities abroad. Such a scenario was unthinkable, he said.

The return of college fees for those who could afford them could play a crucial role in providing a sustainable funding base for higher education, he signalled.

The provost’s comments come ahead of the expected Cabinet discussions on third-level fees over the coming months. Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn is awaiting a report from the Higher Education Authority on the funding challenge. This is expected to underline the deep financial crisis in the sector which must also meet the challenge of a projected 30 per cent increase in student numbers over the next two decades.

Prof Prendergast said he shared the wider concerns about rote learning for the Leaving Cert, and the need to foster more independent and critical thinking.

On the 25 additional CAO bonus points given for higher maths, he said this acknowledged the relative difficulty of the subject. This was why TCD had agreed to the bonus points scheme, he stressed.

Prof Prendergast and the other six university presidents are preparing a submission to the Minister on possible reforms of the Leaving Cert and CAO points system.

The provost has already backed changes to the admissions system for entry to Trinity. He says the current system – which can exclude even the brightest pupils from some poorer areas – is no longer acceptable.

The provost’s comments on the continued underfunding of higher education come ahead of the prestigious QS world university rankings for 2011, due to be published next week. Last year, TCD dropped out of the world’s top 50 universities, slipping from 43 in 2009 to 52 in 2010.

A comfortable winner in the election for provost, Prof Prendergast began his 10-year term three weeks ago. At 44, he is the youngest office-holder in 250 years.

This weekend he is due to give a talk at the Electric Picnic at Stradbally, Co Laois.

Prof Prendergast will deliver his inaugural address later this month, the first inaugural address in the history of the college.