Funding the university sector

 

THE EXTENT of the financial and operational crisis facing the university sector has been outlined in a stark letter sent to the seven presidents by Higher Education Authority (HEA) chief executive Tom Boland. He tells the colleges to brace themselves for an unprecedented range of cuts over the next year as the Government seeks to achieve €3 billion in overall exchequer savings.  Colleges are advised to take “whatever action is needed’’ in advance of reductions in core funding.

Cutbacks in staff numbers and in the range of programmes on offer appear inevitable. The colleges have been told also they can expect no increase in student charges for the next academic year.

It is a bleak scenario. The colleges are being asked to manage record numbers of students with greatly reduced resources. On his blog yesterday, Dublin City University president Ferdinand von Prondzynski summed up what one might call an appalling vista for the sector. He wrote: we will “be under further pressure to add to the student numbers while losing yet more money and having fewer staff to teach them’’.

Universities are already struggling to cope with a 6 per cent cut in resources imposed under the HEA employment control framework. Many are attempting also to reduce substantial accumulated debt. All have seen a significant rise in their staff/student ratio, which already compares unfavourably with competitor colleges in Britain, Scandinavia and elsewhere. A cursory look around any of our universities shows the practical impact of the cuts in poorly maintained buildings and rationalisation of student services. The HEA says about €4 billion will be required over the next decade to allow universities cope with a projected dramatic increase in students. It also concedes such funding is highly unlikely in current circumstances.

For its part, the Government appears to be in denial about the true extent of the crisis. It has identified the universities as a key player in economic revival. There is giddy talk about initiatives which will see thousands of foreign students clamouring for places in our universities; all this when many lecture halls are overcrowded and laboratory facilities are often meagre.

The Government needs to go back to basics. In the first instance, it must provide a a sustainable, long-term funding mechanism for the sector. But the omens are not propitious. Although the forthcoming national strategy on higher education is expected to back the return of tuition charges, the Green Party has vetoed any such move. The hope must be that Mr Boland’s stark message will alert policymakers and the Greens to the extent of the problems facing the sector. At the very least, Fianna Fáil ministers need to put pressure on their Green colleagues to look again at the tuition charge issue. The student loans proposal prepared by Batt O’Keeffe (and welcomed by Fine Gael) has much to recommend it. It was widely seen as fair and equitable . The Green Party cannot be allowed to retain a veto on student tuition charges when their introduction is vital to the national interest.