Shivani Shukla analyses the flow of money into third-level institutions.

 

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Investment in higher education is of paramount importance for every economy in order to maintain a productive, skilled workforce. With nearly 223,000 enrolments in various levels of higher education in 2016, it becomes imperative for Irish universities and colleges to have a directed and continuous flow of funds to support the system. The exchequer has forwarded an additional amount of nearly €92.5m towards higher education for various skill enhancement programmes and to fund development of institutional capacities, along with an additional €47.5m through a Reformed National Training Fund. Even as higher education for Irish students is subsidised, this has been deemed somewhat inadequate.

This goes beyond the traditional solution of increasing lump-sum funding and even suggests that the €3,000 undergraduate student contribution be abolished, thus making it free and ensuring potential future employers make contributions as well as they are the ultimate beneficiaries.”

To remedy this, innovative streams of resources and their effective use have been discussed in the policy document “Investing in National Ambition: A Strategy for Funding Higher Education” prepared by the Department of Education and Skills. This goes beyond the traditional solution of increasing lump-sum funding and even suggests that the €3,000 undergraduate student contribution be abolished, thus making it free and ensuring potential future employers make contributions as well, as ultimately, they too are beneficiaries.

Higher Education Institutions (HEIs) are mostly funded by governments and the balance is made up by external public and private sources. Where on one hand, government funding is directed at teaching resources and skill enhancement schemes, private funding is more often than not provided for research purposes and is competitive in nature. Sustainable higher education financing requires a viable balance of both streams of investment and a robust use of available resources by the higher education institutions, to cater to the ever-changing dynamics of the education sector. Effective internal management of funds sees universities make decisions with student welfare and positive learner outcomes in sight.

The inflow of international students has become a lucrative stream of capital for universities in Ireland. The fee of an international, non-EEA student is about 2.5 times higher than that of an Irish student. Insofar as the financing of the higher level institutions is concerned, this price differential is vital. However, there needs to be more transparency of information regarding expenditure by universities. The profits from such a fee structure must be streamlined towards real investment in high-quality degree courses and better amenities for students.

This has multiple benefits as the lent amount is recovered and the funds are directed towards education of new graduates, which facilitates streamlined use of resources.”

A proposition in the document means that students obtain income contingent loans instead of paying fee upfront. A mechanism which may be a sound addition is the establishment of a Higher Education Fund, wherein students who have taken loans for higher education from the government, repay through this fund rather than through conventional means. This was first suggested by former UK Education Secretary, Justine Greening. This has multiple benefits as the loaned amount is recovered and the funds are directed towards the education of new graduates, which facilitates the streamlined use of resources. Such policies can also promote equity of access, which is currently a core national objective for the higher education system. Investment in positive student engagement in higher education must be an underlying objective and resources allocated to student-run groups such as students’ unions, sports clubs and recreational societies add to the overall development of pupils and makes for a vibrant and prosperous future society.

UCD has retained its position as the top Irish university in the Graduate Employability Ranking. However, this has come amidst talks of inefficient allocation of funding and the joint efforts of the Government, the University and all interest groups are required to continue such a trend. Having said this, any policy changes with regards to funding higher education need to be dynamically tested before widespread and long-term implementation, as is the case with all education and public policy.