The future of education


With the continued commersialisation of universities being continually pushed as a means of combating the economic crisis, David Farrell examines how the University is and ought to be run

Recent reports have noted UCD’s efforts to return to a balanced budget. With a higher than expected rise in revenue, UCD has seen its deficit fall, and by achieving this the University made some decisions that are rather untraditional and questionable. While no one can deny the need for reform and a re-evaluation of priorities, are the steps being taken by UCD and universities in the UK the right ones?

As the recession bites and funds dry up, those bodies funded by the public have lost financial support. The economic crash has seen just that happen. Students’ Unions across the UK and Ireland would have you believe that this has been an unfair and unjustified fall in funding. The cut in funds has brought about a necessity, not only for cuts that in some instances may be essential, as things in the boom got bloated and money came easily. Beyond the cuts has come the necessity for new avenues to raise revenue. It is the imposition of cuts and the methodology used to raise funds that is just as irksome as the punitive cuts that have become the norm.

One of the more noticeable changes for students has come in the form of the increased commercialisation of the campus. The first thing many students joining the university in 2010 noticed was the exclusivity deal with Britvic. The deal saw the University follow the lead of American universities by offering the makers of Pepsi and Club Orange a monopoly on soft drinks in Ireland’s biggest University.

Following on from this, Kylemore was granted the exclusive rights for restaurants across the campus, excluding the main restaurant and all Students’ Union outlets. Such deals and increased tuition fees are more and more common across the UK too. To cover the shortfall in funding, we invite private companies in to use the facilities and provide services that the university cannot. This, though sometimes a minor inconvenience, is not any real issue. It is merely reflective of the wider culture consuming third level institutions in the light of the economic climate.

The once overriding principles of universities: to come to consensus and become fonts of knowledge and debate providing solutions and leaders to society; have been replaced by those of profit and sustainability. The concerns over funding basic education essentials have taken a back seat. The optics of growth and prosperity are now the keys to running a university.

Instead of charging domestic students through the nose, which can happen in some of the higher end universities in the United Kingdom, middling universities just like UCD have hugely expanded their recruitment of international students. This serves dual benefits; it increases the prestige and draw of the university across the globe, and possibly more importantly, international students pay higher fees. This allows universities to garner as much money from tuition or accommodation fees as possible. The international student, while offering much needed diversity of both culture  and ideas, in the new era of university management they are customers in need of many more services than the domestic students.

This commercial end of the university now takes centre stage as the frontline and key services are slashed. The onus to make up the shortfall sees commercial services exploring all sorts of tie-ins with institutions abroad and focusing courses and resources towards areas of research that are most profitable. This is part of the reason for the abnormally high salaries offered to deans and researchers there, as the fields in which they specialise offer the greatest ability to make money.

The culture of profit is nowhere more evident than in UCD’s residences. An area covered in-depth by campus media, anyone with sense can see that the situation in UCD Residences is closer to a casino than a hospitality service. The rules are set in such a way that UCD garners the maximum profit from each student and milks them for every possible charge and infraction. This culture is rampant throughout the University where each possible asset is used as part of a sales pitch to bring in paying students and they’re charged for every little thing.

All the while revenues grow whilst the focus on academic principles fall to the wayside. We see no tangible investment in our future or the resources needed to help us, with increasing attention being paid to cutting corners in services to students and our lecturers. In marked contrast through the contribution expected from students to the government is rising, albeit at low increments. This predicament is more marked in the UK’s top universities though with those at the pinnacle of learning allowed to charge whatever they see fit. This avenue seems a million miles away at present, but there is a belief that those at the highest levels of Irish universities wish for similar powers. The rationale being that we need to further increase contributions to grow the calibre of the institution and enabling them to compete.

Has the culture changed? Is the road leading us to for-profit colleges? They say the proof is in the pudding if that’s the case, the cuts in library hours, book-buying falling, less and less contact hours, increasing administrative fees and a growing unwillingness to engage with the students make the answer very clear. We need to wake up and call a stop to it, however it may be too late.