The scale of underfunding in higher education is not in question. In May 2022 the Government acknowledged as much when it published a plan which promised an additional €307 million in additional core funding for the sector. This followed detailed analysis conducted by the European Commission and other independent experts which highlighted insufficient investment amid rising student numbers. While enrolment climbed by 15 per cent between 2009-2016, investment decreased by 12.5 per cent. Increasing class sizes, ageing infrastructure and over-stretched student services are now taking their toll on the college experience. As the budget looms, universities are asking where is the promised funding?
About €40 million was provided in the last budget to bridge the funding gap. Colleges argue that this was largely eaten up by shortages in funding for national pay awards over the past year or so. Meanwhile, the cumulative combined shortfall in funding grows larger.
Every sector, naturally, seeks a slice of the pie when it comes to the budget. There is never enough to meet all demands. What is different in the case of higher education is the ring-fenced National Training Fund, paid for by a levy on employers. It has, in the words of Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris, a “staggering” ¤1.5 billion surplus. Employers and universities want these funds to be used to deliver high quality education to meet skills gaps. Government officials, however, are understood to be worried about exceeding public spending targets.
While the Government has been restoring funding for the sector over recent years, a key focus has been making access to higher education more affordable through cuts in charges and enhanced grant supports. This is important and commendable. However, it is short-sighted to make college more accessible if students are entering under-funded universities.
Higher education is key to realising our social and economic ambitions. The case for a credible funding plan is compelling.