Death by a Thousand Cuts: The Decline of Third Level Funding

Matthew Hanrahan looks at the implications of the Cassells report for a student body that is united against its recommendations.[br]“UCD drops in the QS World University Rankings.” “UCD staff to student ratio rises.” “UCD student services cut” – over the past number of years these stories have become all too familiar. This year the President of UCD, Professor Andrew Deeks, and the Provost of Trinity, Professor Patrick Prendergast, took the unusual step of calling for government action on higher education funding.
Staff are being hired on precarious contracts and on a very short term basis.”
In July, the Expert Group published the Cassells report on the future funding of higher education. The report identified the risks to higher education caused by “falling resources since 2008”, as well as the need for €600 million over the next 5 years and €1 billion over the next 15 years. This raises the question: what does this lack of sufficient funding actually mean to students’ lives?UCD SU Education Officer, Lexi Kilmartin, highlights the effects of the cuts. She talks of much larger class sizes: “I have 15-20 people where previously I had 10, and I haven’t had tutorials in a lot of my classes.” Also widely publicised earlier this semester were the cuts to the library. “The library had 36% cuts and as a result haven’t been able to update their stock, and they have had to let go of staff.”The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) Deputy President, Jack Leahy, echoes the harms of the funding shortfall. “Staff are being hired on precarious contracts and on a very short-term basis.” In an answer to whether this affects the quality of graduates, he said “no one wants to say because of this problem [of] ‘my university is producing worse graduates’ ” but notes “the industry has generally pointed to a lower quality of graduates.”
“You have less people who are employed for the specific purpose of helping you out.”
Kilmartin also highlights how the cuts have particularly affected students who might need additional support. “If you’re thinking about withdrawing, if you are having a hard time academically, you have less people who are employed for the specific purpose of helping you out.” The UCD SU pre-budget submission highlights the issue of mental health services; demand has risen by 300% over the last eight years and no extra funding has been allocated to universities to deal with the issue.At the same time, it is important to note that there has been a government response. A spokesperson for the Department of Education commenting on the government’s efforts in the recent budget to address the short term funding issue said “there will be an additional investment in third level in 2017 of €36.5 million, and €160 million in total additional funding over the next three years. This will allow us for the first time to keep pace with demographic increases and also introduce targeted initiatives in priority areas such as disadvantage, skills, research and flexible learning with thousands of students benefitting in each of those areas.”Leahy contends that this amount is “definitely not enough to plug the gap in that what’s been identified by the Cassells report as €600 million over 5 years.” Kilmartin agrees, saying that “€36.5 million, split between all the higher institutions, is a drop in the ocean.” While there is widespread agreement on the scale of the funding problem in higher education and while the recent injection of funds is a positive, it is clearly insufficient given the scale of the problem identified by the Cassells Report.
“€36.5 million, split between all the higher institutions, is a drop in the ocean”
Crucially, however, the question around the level of higher education funding is one tied to where higher education funding comes from. The Cassells report considers several options, whether this is free fees for students, or a student loan system with students bearing some of the burden for increased higher education funding.A spokesperson for the Department of Education commenting on the government response to the Cassells report said “as committed to in the Programme for Government, I have referred the report to the Education Committee. The Education Committee will analyse all of the options put forward by the Expert Group and allow the views of all stakeholders and all sides of the debate to be considered.”Students have been active in trying to address this problem as well. On the 19th of October, thousands of students took to the streets in a protest organised by USI. UCDSU, who are not affiliated with USI, still took part. When asked why the protest came after rather than before the budget, Leahy said that there is a “longer term decision to come in June when they make a decision on the funding mechanism.” The government has not yet, adopted a position on future funding of higher education and so it is clear that students will have a vital role to play in which option is advocated.