Op-ed: Joanna Siewierska -The last 10 seconds of the education funding bomb is ticking

UCD Students' Union President on the future of higher education funding and how UCD will be impacted by the ongoing COVID-19 crisis

Today’s news headlines are heartening. The message that staying at home and staying away from our loved ones and our communities is in fact saving their lives, is making it a bit easier to endure the ongoing isolation for a little longer. The worst of the pandemic is still ahead of us, and it makes staying inside feel particularly helpless. However, as I sit at home and try not to spend every waking minute worrying about my family, my thoughts are on what will happen next. And I hope that our policy makers and legislators are looking ahead too. Things will not be going back to normal as we knew it, but they will be moving forward. Considering that a recession is looming, there will be many challenges for us to face. For me, as an activist and Students’ Union President, I am concerned about the future of education. If our Higher Education system was ever at a crisis point, these are the last ten seconds of a ticking bomb. 

After 2008 and the many austerity cuts that affected every public service, higher education was left completely behind by the government, so the sector had to fund itself in other ways. It was never a good idea to allow higher education institutions to rely on commercialisation as a way of funding themselves. I have spent my entire term highlighting the many side effects and inequalities which are a direct result of this approach. Nonetheless, it kept our doors open. Now, we are seeing UCD playing a vital role in the country’s response to the pandemic. UCD’s student doctors, nurses, radiographers, laboratory technicians and volunteers are a crucial part of Ireland’s response to COVID-19. Their work at this time is something the whole country is proud of. I am privileged to represent our superhero students and I am proud to be a graduate of UCD. However, I am worried about the future of universities and how we will be able to sustain our work. 

The only way higher education institutions were able to keep up growth and development in the last decade was by raising non-exchequer funding. UCD’s major source of funding in this period has been the fees of non-EU students, who make up just shy of a third of the campus population. These students are bright, ambitious and incredibly driven individuals. Having met many of them as a student and in my role in the Students’ Union, I can’t imagine our campus without the energy and diversity of having individuals from around the world mixing together in classrooms and societies. However, they also pay significant fees for the opportunity to study in Dublin. Now, with the numbers of international students destined to fall, creating a new gap in funding, UCD will be in serious financial difficulty next year. 

In recent weeks, the government has taken unprecedented steps in response to the Coronavirus pandemic to ensure that basic services can operate and that people are protected. This ethos of decision making, with a spirit of community, must continue beyond the pandemic. We have to ensure that no matter what challenge we are faced with in the future, our universities are ready to help us face it. If Universities are not adequately funded by the next government, where will we get our experts, researchers and students to support our society, in order to emerge from major difficulties? Without them, how are going to begin to respond adequately to other global problems? The clock is ticking!