Is the government to blame for UCD woes?
University College Dublin, similar to most universities around Ireland, is in a crisis of funding. Since 2009, universities have seen a drop in per student funding by the High Education Authority from just under €9000 to slightly over €5000 today, a drop in €4000 euro in just a decade. This is due to deep cuts to state investment during years of austerity and then stagnant investment today. In the last decade, governments have admired the high level of education of the Irish population while also gutting it of state investment. UCD has many problems. Namely, financing the healthcare and counselling service, the high cost of renting in on-campus accommodation, and the burden of all students paying the Student Centre Levy. It would be reasonable to think that given the shortfall in government funding, that the fault for these problems would fall primarily with the Government.
Despite this, there have still been several blunders on the part of President Deeks and the University management. The Confucius Centre ran dramatically over budget costing the university at least €6.2 million from an expected €1.4 million as well as controversy around the University Club which invoked a boycott from most academic staff.
Student Counselling in UCD is a disaster, there is a six-week waiting list, representing half a semester just to get to your first session. Once there you are capped at 8 per year, leading many students to ration their sessions throughout the year. Funding for health and counselling in UCD combined stands at just over €1 million, rising from €930,000 in 2013, an increase of just 7% despite the Association for Higher Access and Disability, stating that students seeking mental health related services increased by 127% over the last five years. Worst affected are students with disabilities and those from low income backgrounds. Lack of funding has left the counselling service critically understaffed.
While UCD has committed to increasing staffing levels and releasing more funds to reduce waiting lists, this issue is only a symptom of a much more national crisis in healthcare and UCD resources are limited. Universities across the country are seeing the need to fund health services, as HSE waiting lists grow and students are opting not to go given the cost of these appointments. If we are to see improvements in the health and wellbeing of students in Ireland, we need to have a more expansive HSE. This would require the government to invest much more in health and consider providing healthcare on campus, rather than relying on the cash strapped universities to do so.
Housing has quite possibly become the most acute problem for UCD students. Dublin is in the middle of a housing and homelessness crisis, and students are disproportionately affected. Government inaction has led to universities and private student accommodation bearing more of the responsibility of housing students. In some ways this could be seen as a positive, the accommodation is purpose built to provide students with the ideal experience in college. It allows students to remain close to the university and have security they otherwise would not have with digs. The primary issue though, is that this accommodation is way outside the price range of any low income earner. Prices can range between €6060 to €8815 per term which means only certain types of students have access to on campus accommodation. The UCD administration has attempted to address the lack of supply of housing by significantly increasing the building of residences on campus. Given the lack of state funding, UCD has had to rely on revenue from the existing residences to self-finance its building projects. If we were to see the development of large-scale housing projects by the government it would help the university, by lessening its responsibility to house its students and reduce those seeking to rent.
The Student Centre Levy covers the building and maintenance of student centres in UCD. University College Dublin has the highest student levy in Ireland, ranging from €43 in DCU to the next highest of UCC at €250. Unlike tuition fees in Ireland, the levy is paid regardless of income and falls disproportionately on SUSI recipient students, acting as a barrier for low income students. The justification for the student levy comes from Governmental refusal to fund ex-curricular activities in Ireland, whether they be sports, societies or student unions. This stance is comical in the face of Taoiseach Leo Varadkar pledging an extra €10m on top of what was requested for the development of Connacht Rugby Stadium. Students activities need to be funded if we are to see long term growth in Irish sports. The path for this development is to bring all student levies nationwide under the Higher Education Authority. This would greatly help low income students which the levy would then be covered under SUSI. The student centre is key to UCD’s development as a world class centre of education and should be considered when attracting students from around the world. The burden of funding this must not fall on the poorest of UCD’s students.
Ultimately the problems of UCD, housing, healthcare, and cost of fees are all critically linked to the issue of funding. Andrew Deeks’ conservative management of UCD, while not mistakes such as the over commitment to the Confucius Centre, can largely be described as a reaction to cuts to educational funding. In order for UCD to become a college where the education and welfare of the students comes first, it must have appropriate funding from the government while also not being managed in Deek’s style of favouring profit over the lives of students.