Third-level timebomb must become a election priority

Core funding provided by State to third-level institutions is now 40% less than it was a decade ago

‘Crisis, what crisis?” Three words that helped bring down Jim Callaghan’s Labour government in the 1979 UK general election. The prime minister never actually uttered these words. A Sun subeditor fashioned the headline but it captured the popular impression of an administration unaware of a serious state of affairs which had caught up with it.

We are approaching the fourth anniversary of the Government-commissioned report by Peter Cassells, Investing in National Ambition. It identified the critical funding challenge facing our higher education system and set out the scale of the investment required to deliver on our national ambition. When Cassells was published, the funding problem facing the sector was described as a crisis. Few, if anyone disagreed.

Four years on, the crisis has hardened. The implications are more apparent. Recently the independent Oireachtas Parliamentary Budget Office described higher education as “a cornerstone of the Irish economy, but it is under significant financial pressure and with an unsustainable funding model”.

We appreciate that the situation has been acknowledged by the political system. While some welcome extra funding has been provided in recent years, the stark fact remains that the core funding provided by the State to third-level institutions is now 40 per cent less than it was a decade ago.


This is at a time of unprecedented growth in the student population and we know that numbers will increase by at least 36,000 over the next decade. It is clear that this funding crisis is a time bomb, unless politicians of all persuasions genuinely commit to urgent action.

This matters for Ireland. Our talent and pool of knowledge is the core asset that Ireland, as a small open economy, possesses to compete globally. This asset is all the more crucial to our collective future as other advantages such as tax incentives for foreign direct investment recede in importance due to changes in international tax treaties. Our talent is our future, and our higher education system is the primary enabler of that talent.

The potential solutions identified by Cassells four years ago have now been referred to an EU-funded study group for further analysis. Realistically, we will have to wait until late 2020 to get a “report about a report”. It will take a further year or more for the political and civil service system to act decisively.

Ireland just cannot wait that long. We are losing ground every month. This fundamentally compromises the quality of our system and the student experience. If we delay further, there is a real risk that the quality of our higher education system, already showing signs of strain as reflected in the fall in international rankings, will be ineluctably damaged. If we allow that to happen, it could take decades, to recover lost ground.

There is a solution, at least on an interim basis. We propose a two-part approach for the next three years, until the longer-term funding model is developed and implemented by the political system. The first part encompasses a commitment to increase core exchequer funding to third-level students by at least €100 million per year over each of the next three years.

The second component involves the use of a growing fund that already exists. The National Training Fund (NTF), is funded through a levy on employer revenues. This levy has been increased in recent years and the fund will have a surplus of €1 billion by the end of 2020.

Based on current trends, that surplus will grow to €1.5 billion by 2022. The initiative was established with the singular purpose of supporting our national education and skills training requirements. It is unimaginable that such a fund surplus would be allowed to sit in a Government bank account while the crisis in third level funding continues apace. This money has to be put to work.

We propose, therefore, that the government allocate at least an additional €200 million per year from the NTF Fund over the next three years in addition to the increased commitment of core exchequer funding.

Administrative issues

There may be administrative issues to be resolved regarding EU fiscal rules in order to enable an accelerated drawdown of the NTF Reserve. However, we believe that this is well within the capacity of our excellent civil servants and the negotiation skills of our politicians, particularly as Ireland will be the EU state most adversely affected by Brexit.

If the political system does not deliver a sustainable solution, the central role played by the universities and institutes of technology in our economy and our society could be fatally undermined. We will have failed our students and we won’t be equipped to develop the talent pipeline for society and the growing knowledge economy. Our ability to support communities as partners, local employers, and our capacity to nurture culture, heritage and sport will be damaged.

The higher education community has a wide reach. Collectively, the staff and student community at third level is close to 300,000 people, perhaps double or treble that when their immediate families are counted in. This is a sizeable electorate, spread throughout the country, which is deeply concerned about the third-level crisis. They won’t be comforted by platitudes.

To quote another British prime minster, Winston Churchill; “Never let a good crisis go to waste.”

Lorna Fitzpatrick is President of the Union of Students in Ireland. Dr Joseph Ryan is Chief Executive of the Technological Higher Education Association and Jim Miley is Director General of the Irish Universities Association