A Broken System? Amsterdam, NCAD, and Higher Education Funding

Cian Carton examines student protests in Amsterdam and NCAD, along with a session from the Public Accounts Committee’s look at the funding of higher education in Ireland and questions if the system is up to scratch.For the last three weeks, the Maagdenhuis building at the University of Amsterdam (UvA), has been under the occupation of a group of the university’s staff and students who call themselves “The New University”. Surely such a long-lasting occupation in a European university is newsworthy? A brief search online for information reveals that only left-wing blogs are reporting on it, along with a short Wikipedia entry, and local Dutch sources.The occupation is a challenge to the neoliberalisation of the university. The protestors are angry with the managers of the university, who they claim to be far removed from the realities of what it takes to run a university. The university cut its Humanities budget, and has also been shutting down and selling off parts of its property portfolio in the city. Furthermore, in the eyes of the students, the managers are not held accountable for their actions. In an open letter to the UvA Executive Board, the protestors called for a “democratisation of the UvA”.It is surprising how the situation in Amsterdam is a parallel to the ongoing events at the National College of Art and Design (NCAD), which are reported on in this newspaper. One can briefly look at one telling example of the situation at NCAD, which highlights the plight of its students. It comes from a letter sent by NCAD Students’ Union (NCADSU), to the college, which seen by the University Observer.Emmet House is rented by NCAD and is used by its Masters of Fine Arts students. The lease on the building was set to expire on the 28th February 2015. Students were informed of this on the 17th February, along with the fact that the college had no alternative space organised for them. It required the intervention of students, who directly contacted the landlord, in order for a deal to be reached to keep the building open for students until the end of the current academic year. This is merely one such instance which explains how the current situation developed, and gives context to the protests.Would it be fair to say that NCAD is a one-off situation? Recent revelations suggest otherwise. One of the most revealing insights into the funding behind third level education in Ireland comes from the Oireachtas. On the 22 January 2015, the Public Accounts Committee (PAC) met to discuss the Financial Statements of the Higher Education Authority 2013 and the General Report No. 85 of the Comptroller and Auditor General: Accountability and Governance on the National College of Art and Design. In attendance were the Director of NCAD, Professor Declan McGonagle, and the Chief Executive Officer of the Higher Education Authority (HEA), Tom Boland.The news headlines which arose from the hearing centred on NCAD receiving over €100 million in public money at a time when it was filing its accounts several years late. Media outlets reported on how NCAD’s accounting practise was been described as “not fit for purpose”, by the Comptroller & Auditor General, Séamus McCarthy.