Breda O’Brien: Catholic higher education is being downgraded

Eclipse of Catholic institutions not inevitable, but a policy decision; Irish bishops seem incapable of resistance on their own

Recently, the Catholic bishops declared that religious education (RE) teachers will need specific educational qualifications to teach in Catholic schools. Given that there is a legal obligation in the 1998 Education Act to protect the ethos or characteristic spirit of a school, the minimum requirements are not unreasonable.

It sits oddly, however, with the general decline in Catholic institutes of higher education. Where will these qualifications come from, not just now, but in the future?

Presumably, the bishops are not simply looking for academic qualifications without any belief? It would be perfectly possible to attain the necessary 60 credits in theology, scripture, world religions, and teaching RE through a Catholic lens, without believing any of it.

Catholic institutes of higher education emphasise the education of the whole person, but more and more of these institutes are being incorporated into larger, secular institutes or universities, where the prevailing market-driven ethos may be seriously at odds with Catholic values.


Public funding tends to gravitate to what will benefit business and the economy, to the neglect of the humanities. The humanities in general struggle to get funding but the case of theology is particularly acute. The pressure on faith-based colleges is even stronger.

St Angela’s College, Sligo, recently amalgamated with the Atlantic Technological University. Mary Immaculate College is understood to be seeking even closer alignment with the University of Limerick. The Milltown Institute and All Hallows have closed, with some money invested into bursaries for third-level education. Milltown has given its priceless library on long-term loan to DCU.

Carlow College first opened for lay male students, but when the French revolution closed seminaries, added seminarian training in 1793

Other institutes may simply be relinquished. Taoiseach Micheál Martin said in June that Carlow College is to be handed over to South East Technological University with “no strings attached” provided that it was used for education.

Carlow College first opened for lay male students, but when the French revolution closed seminaries, added seminarian training in 1793. After Trinity College, it is the second oldest Irish third-level institution and now has 600 lay students.

It is an open secret that the church has come under serious political pressure to amalgamate its institutions with larger entities, or else face closure or staff redundancies. When a faith-based college changes from a small community with a distinctive ethos to a department in a much larger secular college, a vital culture is lost.

Take the incorporation of St Pat’s, Drumcondra, the Mater Dei Institute and Church of Ireland College of Education into a new DCU Institute of Education. Doubtless, DCU was sincere about protecting the institutions’ ethos.

However, students are studying “denominationally neutral” content, as Prof Brian MacCraith, then DCU president, said in 2014, along with “delivery of modules for all denominations which will allow the appropriate preparation of teachers for denominational schools”.

Preparation for teaching RE has changed from a holistic experience permeating every aspect of college life to a series of modules. It is like the difference between attending a Gaelscoil and spending 40 minutes a day studying Irish in an English-language medium school.

Prof Eamonn Conway is now Professor of Integral Human Development at the University of Notre Dame Australia, but before that was Head of Theology and Religious Studies at Mary Immaculate College, Limerick.

He said recently in the Irish Catholic that the situation is so serious for the future of the Irish church that the Vatican should put a moratorium on further handovers or mergers. He also has grave concerns about how synodal the process is of allowing these institutions to be absorbed into large, secular entities. If we are allegedly moving as a church to where insights of lay people are not an optional extra but integral, why are most of these decisions being taken in a top-down way?

Internationally, Catholic higher education is highly valued. The Catholic Church is the biggest non-governmental provider of tertiary education in the world with a particularly strong record of third-level education for women. Enrollment grew globally between 1980 and 2020 from 2.2 million students to 6.6 million.

It is not just about teacher training but the whole intellectual formation of Catholics into the future

In Europe, it is not unusual for Catholic universities and institutes to receive state funding. For example, in Belgium in 2020, there were 180,000 students in Catholic tertiary education, receiving full state funding. In 2014, a Catholic college in Twickenham, St Mary’s, first known for teacher education, was awarded full university title. It receives government funding from the Office for Students and Research England.

Tilburg, a Dutch Catholic University, receives block funding on the same basis as state-owned universities. Similarly, In March 2020, it was announced that the Ukrainian Catholic University would receive state funding for the first time.

Downgrading Catholic institutions is not inevitable but a policy decision. Perhaps the abuse scandals of recent decades have left the Irish bishops too demoralised to resist on their own.

It is not just about teacher training but the whole intellectual formation of Catholics into the future. In the absence of synodal decision-making, the Vatican could be a useful counterpoint to local political pressure. There should be a Vatican investigation into the future of Irish Catholic higher education. And until that happens, no further third-level divestment should occur.