There are many quotations on the value of education but few are more apt than that of Nelson Mandela who described it as “the most powerful weapon you can use to change the world”. University students need no convincing on the power of the educational weapon. But, it would seem that those who wield political power in Ireland have some way to go to be convinced of the need to properly fund the university and higher education system.
It’s over two years since the Report of the Expert Group on Future Funding for Higher Education (the Cassells Report) was published – almost three years since the main body of work for the Report was completed. The political inaction since has surpassed many previous ‘dust-gathering on a shelf’ records. All political parties express a strong regard for the Cassells Report but we’re no closer to a solution. Cassells said that “there is a need and a desire for urgent reform of the funding landscape. The funding system is simply not fit for purpose”. “Urgent” in 2016 is fast developing into a 2018 “crisis”.
“We know that by 2030, an additional 40,000 extra students per year will arrive at the doors of higher educational institutions. That’s the equivalent in under-graduate terms to UCD and TCD combined.”
The Government’s ambition to have a “Best in Europe” higher education system by 2026 is shared by the seven universities. But, that ambition can only be realised if it is enabled by a revamped and sustained public funding programme. Higher education is a cornerstone of our economy. It is the key supplier of the human capital that generates the creativity and innovation that fuels the knowledge economy.
The reduction in core funding to universities, combined with the steady increase in students seeking a third level qualification, has fundamentally undermined the financial model. We know we need an extra €600 million per year to fund higher education by 2021. Nobody, including the government and political system disputes that.
But, it is easy to get numbed or bamboozled when we speak of millions and billions of Euro. Focusing on the State funding per student brings the issue into a sharper and much more relevant focus. At roughly €4,500 per student, State funding for universities now is just half of what it was a decade ago. This is the stark current reality of higher level funding in Ireland.
We know that this cliff-fall in State funding was driven by the recession. We also know that what we are left with is, from a State perspective, a low-cost higher education system, one of the lowest cost systems in Europe or the developed world. Squaring that against the “best in Europe” ambition is where the State equation begins to fall apart. If the current low-cost system persists, we will not just fail in achieving that ambition, but likely fall down the quality rankings against our competitors who are investing heavily by comparison.
The evidence of detrimental impact has been greatly mitigated by universities becoming significantly more efficient and resourceful. Extra student numbers in recent years have been funded largely by internal efficiencies and other cost cutting measures which are now largely exhausted. And, as each year goes by, the problem grows.
We know that by 2030, an additional 40,000 extra students per year will arrive at the doors of higher educational institutions. That’s the equivalent in under-graduate terms to UCD and TCD combined. If the funding problem is not fixed, there may not be places available for many of them.
“The extra State bill varies from €600 million to €1.3 billion per year depending on which of the Cassells options is chosen… Delaying the funding decision further will only serve to increase the bill in future years.”
The gap in core funding to 2021 based on Cassells’ analysis must be bridged if we are to have any hope of reversing recent declines. The Irish Universities Association has sought €130 million extra in core funding for the universities in Budget 2019 as well as a €104 million injection in a capital refurbishment fund. This is to address the seriously defective buildings and infrastructure across many campuses arising from years of neglect.
This investment would allow universities to absorb the significant growth in student numbers while also starting to address the underlying quality issues which have arisen from years of underfunding, which are now beginning to become evident in international rankings. Such investment would also underpin efforts to increase access and improve student engagement.
All of the options for future funding put forward by Cassells include substantial increases in State funding. The extra State bill varies from €600 million to €1.3 billion per year depending on which of the Cassells options is chosen. That bill is not going away as student numbers entering the system rise year on year. Delaying the funding decision further will only serve to increase the bill in future years.
We know that investing in higher education is an investment in the future human capital of the country. We know that the economic and societal dividends are unquestionable. We know that the problem is not going way; rather it is going to grow as the higher education demographic graph rises year on year.
We know too that the political system will ultimately have to make a decision. Politicians would do well to heed another piece of advice from Mandela: “It always seems impossible until it’s done”.