Government ministers are fond of describing the State’s higher education system as a strategic national asset which is essential to achieving a knowledge-based, innovative, creative society and economy.
For more than a decade, however, universities say they have been held back from reaching their full potential by a policy overseen by these same ministers.
The employment control framework, introduced in 2008 during the economic crash, required approval for every appointment, stipulated that no administrative or support staff could be considered for replacement, while only one in three academic vacancies could be filled.There were sound reasons for the policy at the time, given the parlous state of the public finances.
Fifteen years later, however, the employment control framework remains – broadly speaking – intact. Over this time student numbers have climbed by 30 per cent or more, while staffing numbers nudged upwards by about 10 per cent. This has resulted in student-to-staff ratios leaping from 16:1 in 2007 to about 23:1 today. This compares with European averages of 15:1.
These trends have triggered warnings about threats to the quality of higher education programmes and casualisation of academic employment, especially among younger academics and researchers. For students, it has meant larger class sizes and less access to lecturers, laboratories, equipment, materials, libraries and tutorials, which are vital for quality education.
Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris, insists that this year represents a turning point. He says additional core funding provided for in Budget 2023 will allow higher education institutions to hire more than 1,500 permanent, full-time staff from September.
This additional investment forms part of the Government’s “funding the future” policy, announced last year. It identified a core funding gap of just over ¤300 million for the higher education sector, which Harris has pledged will be addressed over a number of budgets.
In parallel, he says his department is working with the Department of Public Expenditure, the Higher Education Authority and education stakeholders on a new model to replace the employment control framework which “better aligns with current realities in the sector”.
This will be welcome news for universities who, in many cases, have spent years sliding down global ranking league tables due in part to student-staff ratios. The gaps which have opened up over the past decade or more, however, will not be plugged overnight. Building up a world class higher education system will require addressing legacy issues, a sustainable funding model and wider reform. For students, quality teaching and support must be at the heart of it.