Resources or places: decision time for colleges


OPINION:If colleges cannot get sufficient funding from either the Government or through fees, then places may have to be capped – with implications for points, writes TOM BOLAND

WE ARE a most fortunate country. While many other countries (our nearest neighbour included) struggle to convince their young people of the benefits of higher education, we appear to have an insatiable appetite for it.

According to figures released recently by the Higher Education Authority, 2009 sees the highest number of acceptances for higher education in the history of the Central Applications Office process – up more than 8 per cent on 2008 to 45,582 (itself an increase of 6 per cent on 2007). We have long bemoaned the relative weakness in the demand for science and technology programmes, although in truth we fare quite well by international benchmarks. But the figures released last week give still more grounds for celebration – a dramatic increase in the numbers seeking to pursue computing and science – up 25 per cent from 2008.

The statistic of the last 30 years that will have the greatest impact on our future prosperity is that we have gone from two in 10 school leavers going on to higher education to two in three. Irish economic and social policy is firmly focused on a knowledge economy and society. The strength of the appetite for higher education, putting us close to leaders in this field in the OECD, is a wonderful natural resource in achieving our ambitions.

Ireland now will be shaped by, and for, the best-educated generation in its history. When we compare the challenges today with those of the 1980s recession, we should take heart from the fact that we now have the advantage of a much expanded workforce that is increasingly a highly skilled one. We also have a population, especially the young, who have seen what Ireland can achieve and are not cowed by a fear of failure.

In her article in this paper last Tuesday, President Mary McAleese wrote eloquently of young Irish people who, among their many positive characteristics “have a confidence that eluded past generations and that comes from being the best educated ever on this island and high among the best educated in the world”.

Higher education has delivered, and continues to deliver, for Ireland and its students. Higher-education institutions, their management and staff are meeting this record demand from school leavers while at the same time accommodating more students who wish to remain to post-graduate level and adults entering higher education for the first time, or returning to education to improve their skills. The universities, institutes and other colleges are also active participants in measures to support the return to education of the jobless.

And they are doing all this in the context of a 5 per cent cut in their core funding in 2009 and a staffing moratorium that will see staff numbers reduced by at least 3 per cent (500) this year. On what is probably a conservative measure, the productivity gain is of the order of €80-€100 million. The management and staff of the universities and colleges have not sought thanks or congratulation. They have simply got on with the job. Their only caveat being that while demand will be met, quality must not be compromised.

Higher education will be asked to deliver more, because such is the crisis in public funding there is no alternative. They will be asked to deliver more in areas such as the hours of teaching and research engaged in; in shared services; in centralised procurement and in bringing a sense of coherence and co-ordination to an excessively fragmented system.

I am confident managements and staff will deliver. But with the best will in the world, and there is goodwill, we cannot and will not address the resource and related quality needs of higher education solely by productivity gains. As matters stand we are at risk of sleepwalking our way from a temporary and ultimately soluble economic crisis to a future crisis of confidence in the quality of our higher education and skills system which could prove much harder to solve and have a longer-lasting impact.

It does not have to be so. If we cannot agree where sufficient resources can be found, an option available is to follow the example of England, where they cap the number of students. There, they make a judgment that to educate a student to an appropriate level of quality, the cost per student must not go below a defined threshold.

We could follow their example and decide that at a participation level of about 65 per cent (compared to under 50 per cent in England) we have enough higher education for now. The implications of such a decision would be that the competition for places would intensify, but those who do get a place in college would have a quality education guaranteed. It means that more students, unable to gain a place in an Irish college, will seek their education abroad. And, for some, capping numbers means capping their ambitions, hopes and life chances.

On the other hand, if we continue to assume we can, year after year, increase the number of students while reducing the resource per student, we risk the disillusionment of those we persuaded that higher education was the best avenue to fulfilled and prosperous lives – second-rate degrees won’t cut it in our globalised economy.

The great pity about the “debate” on tuition fees for undergraduate higher education was that the real issue was never really discussed: how do we resource higher education? Those opposed to tuition fees, even through income-contingent loan schemes, rarely descended from their principled opposition to articulate an alternative, other than references to the “Government” should provide the resources. The “Government” in this instance is the taxpayers and we have a keen appreciation of how most of us feel about additional taxation. The Higher Education Strategy Group will consider the issue and report back early in 2010. Its recommendations on resourcing higher education should receive priority attention, should be the subject of focused debate and be implemented with minimum delay.

Tom Boland is chief executive of the Higher Education Authority

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