Higher education: time to invest to match our ambition

Budget provides a chance to prioritise investment to reflect the scale of our national ambition

 

Ireland’s higher education system has a critical role to play in creating jobs, raising living standards and supporting an open and tolerant society. In turbulent times,the quality of our third-level sector is even more important in supporting economic growth and fulfilling the potential of our students.

However, after almost a decade of spending cuts, rising student enrolment and falling numbers of academic staff, higher education is under acute pressure. Many of our institutes of technology are in financial crisis while growing class sizes are reducing access to one-on-one tuition and lecturers’ ability to identify and support at-risk students. The pressure is set to keep rising. Third level student numbers are projected to increase by almost 30 per cent over the next decade or so. As the Irish Universities Association has pointed out, this is more than the combined size of UCD and Trinity College Dublin.

The Government has lofty ambitions to create the best education system in Europe by the end of the decade. But its aspirations have not been matched by adequate funding. While there was a modest increase of about €37 million last year, funding per student did not actually increase.

The Cassells report on the future funding of third-level has projected that an additional €1 billion is needed over the next decade if the State is serious about building a world-class higher education system. There is little sign yet that funding of this scale will be made available. Last week Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said third-level students should make a contribution toward their education, but he could not support a system that left them repaying substantial debts. Most will support such a sentiment. Beyond this, there has been little direction from Government. Instead of taking decisive action, it has been content to let the issue languish in an Oireachtas committee.

The forthcoming Budget provides a chance to prioritise investment for higher education to reflect the scale of our national ambition. The future prosperity of our graduates, as well as the wider economy, is at stake.