Irish higher education, like so much else of society, has been plunged into uncharted waters since the arrival of Covid-19. Almost overnight it has switched from face-to-face lectures to remote learning and assessment.
By most measures, it has adapted well. However, an even greater challenge looms, with implications for the sustainability of universities and the quality of teaching and learning.
Universities, in particular, are vulnerable because the majority of their income is generated privately. Although extra State investment has been provided in recent years, core public funding per student remains 40 per cent less than it was a decade ago.
As a result, our top third-level institutions are heavily reliant on the lucrative international student market, tourism and on-campus events to make up the shortfall. Income from all these sources has been wiped out.
The pandemic response shows the value of good science and research as a basis for sound policy-making
Even before the pandemic, the sector was losing ground on its competitors. Underfunding has been compromising the quality of our system as well as the student experience. Our top institutions had been sliding down international university rankings for years.
The sector was also facing a timebomb of increased student numbers at home, with an additional 36,000 expected over the next decade. The Covid-19 crisis only serves to underscore the urgency of dealing with these problems.
Almost every sector is looking for State assistance. However, universities can make a compelling case for additional core funding. Jobless numbers are growing rapidly and we will need ambitious plans to reskill the workforce. With appropriate support, higher education has the potential to be part of the solution by upskilling workers and meeting emerging skills gaps. It can also play a key role in developing the knowledge and skills base of the country and fuelling economic growth by supporting job creation.
We have already seen how the third-level sector has played an important role in the national effort to combat coronavirus. Academics have been guiding the State’s response, laboratory staff are processing samples, research facilities are discovering more about how the virus works.
The pandemic response shows the value of good science and research as a basis for sound policy-making. In the recovery, this research will be just as important.
If we continue to delay decisions on how the sector is funded, there is a real risk that the quality of our higher education system will sustain further damage. It could take years to recover lost ground. With the right support, however, our universities will be able to retain their capacity to produce top graduates, deliver high-quality research output and play a vital role in our social and economic recovery.