Funding deficit threatens our universities' world standing


Reintroducing fees at third level would help meet the sector's acute need for cash, writes James McDermott

DOUGLAS YATES, the author, once observed: "They say that we are better educated than our parents' generation. What they mean is that we go to school longer. They are not the same thing." While ever-increasing participation rates in higher education are to be welcomed, one wonders what effect the 3 per cent cut in third-level payroll costs being sought by Minister Batt O'Keeffe will have on the quality of graduates ultimately produced.

This is not to say that our third-level institutions are currently underperforming, indeed if anything they are overachieving when one considers the severe financial constraints upon them. According to the rankings produced last year by the Times Higher Education Supplement, there has been a significant improvement in performance by a number of our universities in recent years.

Trinity College Dublin moved up from 78th to 53rd place on the most recent global list, with UCD (up from 219th to 177th) and UCC (up from 386th to 286th) also rising, and DCU putting in an excellent performance in moving up from 441st to 300th place in the rankings. This improvement is all the more remarkable in that it was achieved to the backdrop of significant restructuring of faculties and courses in some of our leading universities.

Yet all is not as well as it seems in the sector, and one wonders if the impressively upward trajectory of our universities is sustainable in an economy now in recession. The reality is that the upper echelons of the Times Higher Education Supplementlist are dominated year after year by British and American universities, as illustrated by the fact that of the top 10 universities in the world seven are located in the United States and the other three in England, a position that is not expected to change any time soon.

For example, Harvard is currently considered to be the world's finest university, and it also happens to enjoy the world's largest financial endowment of any non-profit organisation, valued at approximately $35 billion (€22.7 billion).

But the really worrying thing is not so much that our third-level institutions do not have the money Harvard does; it's more that they don't appear to have any money at all, with most running at a significant annual deficit. Recent pleas for extra funds have failed to make any impression on a Government that is prepared to do anything to create world-class universities except adequately fund them.

In such an atmosphere it is not surprising that our third-level institutions have found ways to boost flagging finances. For example, despite the end of third-level fees, students upon arrival on campus every September have to stump up a "registration fee", which is now nearly €1,000 in most Irish universities.

Perhaps more controversially, our under-resourced universities appear to be increasingly attracted by the much higher levels of fees that can be charged to non-EU citizens. For example, the annual fee for non-EU citizens studying medicine at undergraduate level in one of the NUI colleges is approximately €27,000, with the overseas rate on the newly established graduate entry medical degrees likely to be about €42,000.

The legality of preserving a large quota of places in high-demand courses for overseas students was challenged unsuccessfully in the High Court recently by 20-year-old student Frank Prendergast who, despite excellent Leaving Cert results, was unable to secure a university place to study medicine in circumstances where he claimed that had he been a non-EU national, he might well have been offered a place even with an inferior academic record. Indeed his offer to pay the overseas student rate for the course was declined by the universities concerned.

However Justice Peter Charlton found against Prendergast concluding that were he to find in his favour, he would be replacing "one alleged inequality with a different but very real and unjust inequality" because although Prendergast might be able to pay the full economic cost to the medical school of his education, another Irish student might not. "Why should he gain access to a medical career based on his money and lesser points performance in the Leaving Certificate when that other student, on perhaps better points, does not?" said the judge.

This judgment will come as a huge relief to our university leaders, whose eagerness to exploit this potentially lucrative overseas market was illustrated by figures released last year by the Higher Education Authority, which showed that almost 12,000 students from 114 countries were studying at Irish universities, with such enrolments up 170 per cent over the last 10 years. While a large number of these students come from within the EU, it is also noticeable that certain countries such as Malaysia (which provided 1,134 students) and China (891) are becoming emerging markets for our universities.

This is understandable because as well as providing much-needed revenue for our universities, such recruits also help to move our universities up the world rankings, as the international student ratio is one of the criteria taken into account by the Times Higher Education Supplement.

In the Prendergast case, Justice Charlton noted that the number of foreign students in the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland "now greatly exceeds 50 per cent", with the foreign intake into the other medical schools being around a third, although "the contribution that they make to the budget of the medical schools is around 50 per cent or more".

If this trend of targeting overseas students continues, one wonders what will be the attitude of the Irish taxpayer to the ever-increasing likelihood of their children being denied a university place while simultaneously overseas students with poorer exam results but bulging bank balances are offered places on the same course at a hugely inflated level of fees to help subsidise the education of their Irish classmates.

In circumstances where our universities are clearly in need of money that the Government either cannot or will not provide, and with the methods currently being used by them to raise additional funds being challenged in the courts, one wonders if the Government would be better off simply reintroducing third-level fees for the tens of thousands of students whose families can easily afford to pay them.

Looking at the most recent statistics concerning the feeder schools for our universities, it is noticeable that of the top 10 feeder schools for both Trinity College and UCD, nine were fee-paying, with the Institute of Education grind school topping both tables.

In an economic climate where parents are turning their noses up at free places for their children in perfectly good secondary schools, preferring instead to pay thousands of euro a year for their offspring to attend what they perceive to be more elite institutions, one must ask if it is really that unreasonable to ask such parents to make a similar contribution to the cost of their child's third-level education.

The answer to that question is no, according to our university leaders, a majority of whom now support the reintroduction of third-level fees. Dublin City University president Ferdinand von Prondzynski recently described a reintroduction of fees as being "inevitable".

And even if it is deemed unfair to ask parents to pay for their children's third-level education, why should the children themselves not pay for it through the introduction of a graduate tax? After all there is no doubt that the vast majority of students who successfully graduate from university end up in higher-paid jobs than would otherwise be the case as a direct result of their third-level education.

In such circumstances it hardly seems unreasonable to impose a graduate tax on such individuals once they hit a certain elevated income bracket and are receiving the financial benefits of their qualifications.

And in any serious debate about the financing of higher education one must remember that tuition fees only represent a fraction of the real cost of third level when one takes into account essential student expenses such as rent, food and travel.

In this regard the recent decision of Mr O'Keeffe to freeze the level of maintenance grants for students from less affluent backgrounds in the coming academic year is regrettable. And with inflation running at 4 per cent a year, the effect of such a freeze is to reduce, in real terms, the financial assistance available to our poorest students.

But whether funded by parents or graduates, substantial change is needed if our universities are ever to be considered world-class centres of learning.

For as things stand, when one reflects on the current State provision of funds for third-level education one is reminded of the observation of historian Alexander Tytler that "If Patrick Henry thought that taxation without representation was bad, he should see how bad it is with representation".

• James McDermott is a lecturer in the law school at UCD and a practising barrister