Standing of universities 'under threat'

 

The international standing of Irish universities will suffer a “serious decline” if the issue of student fees is not tackled immediately, former Irish EU commissioner Peter Sutherland has warned.

Mr Sutherland said deficiencies in the Republic’s educational system were particularly evident at third level.

He told the MacGill Summer School today the issue of university funding had been effectively removed from public debate because political parties were refusing to face up to the crisis.

Even before the downturn, Mr Sutherland said, spending on education in the Republic was significantly less was than in other developed economies.

The funding to the seven universities in Ireland in 2010 will be 24.5 per cent lower than 2009 levels.

Although this will be partially offset by some additional income mainly through the free fees initiative, he said, the overall reduction will be 6-7 per cent, notwithstanding the higher student/staff ratios across Irish institutions.

Mr Sutherland said the main focus should not just be the reform of the system but also how the income of the universities can be supplemented from other sources.

“The fundamental issue is that we can either refuse to have student fees and suffer the serious decline in the standing of our universities which will take effect virtually immediately or we can look at what has been done elsewhere,” he said.

The introduction of fees did not necessarily mean an actual payment by students, he said, citing the British system which is based on student loans.

In his address, Mr Sutherland said the State invested substantially more per student in institutes of technology than in universities, and this needed to be addressed.

A national higher education system must meet diverse social and economic demands, he added.

“Our duty now must be above all to our young. At all levels our educational system needs to be prioritised,” he said.

“This is not all about money either. It is more than anything about empowering schools and third level institutes - but empowerment linked to clear accountability,” he said.

The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) earlier this week warned the reintroduction of higher education tuition fees would force thousands of students to drop out of colleges and universities.

The USI was responding to suggestions that an advisory group examining the issue was likely to back new student fees.

In a series of recent briefings, the group’s chairman Dr Colin Hunt acknowledged the financial crisis facing higher education and stressed the urgent need for what he called new forms of “non-State funding”.

His comments have been interpreted as support for tuition fees. It is widely expected the Hunt report will call for a new system of student fees, most likely through some form of graduate tax.