Should UCD prioritise funding degrees with better job prospects?

YES by Heather Reynolds

As the largest university campus in the country, UCD has very high overheads. They have to be able to keep the lights on from month to month. Therefore, any extra funding they can gain, be it from government funding or Alumni donations, can only make the student experience better. In theory, the more money the university has, the more money it can channel back into courses and facilities. Rather than placing these costs on current students by increasing fees or facilities costs, it makes more sense for them to look for added Alumni donations per annum. However, for Alumni to donate, they have to be making money in the first place.

Revamping the Arts cafe cost the university money, as does maintaining student spaces and facilities around campus, such as water fountains and recycling bins, which are widely agreed upon to be good things. Whether they are large investments, like the renovations currently overtaking the Newman Building, or smaller day to day costs like keeping lights on, paying cleaners, and paying estate services to keep buildings open, UCD is a pricey operation. Therefore, it is in the university’s best interests to place preference on degrees that are more likely to produce Alumni who make large sums of money, and that can do so quickly. Increasing fees to meet these costs would only drive away potential students, and so, Alumni gifts and donations are key to larger, long term projects such as the new Alumni Club, or cross-building renovations.

Prioritising one set of degrees does not mean that another set could not be continued. If it was decided that Engineering was the most profitable degree, Business degrees would not cease to exist. They may be downsized, perhaps the Quinn building might not be able to licence from Starbucks anymore, but they would still exist. Lectures would still be held, degrees would still be handed out. Course sizes may shrink in some cases, but for those who are already in degrees that the university has little to no care about, nothing would change.

The argument that the university should put preference towards degrees which are expected to be high earners typically assumes that preference for one means a complete lack of funding for the other. This is not the case. Having higher funding for one course does not negate the money put towards another, and with potentially more money coming in from Alumni if this were to come to pass, the amount of funding available for both would increase. It could be a short period of decreased funding that gives way to increases across campus for all courses, both those perceived profitable and not. It would not be likely to shrink any larger course that is seen as less profitable so long as the demand remains high, as course fees cover the bulk of costs per student. Someone looking to do Drama Studies with Folklore is not likely to turn and do Business and Law just because it has the funding to franchise a Costa, making it unlikely to affect course sizes overall as interest levels would stay about the same.

As it stands, there is no logical reason not to funnel more funding into courses that are more likely to make money for the university, as the university populous as a whole is able to benefit from it in future years via increased donations, which can be put towards increasing the quality of life on campus. The degrees that are most likely to be negatively impacted by a process like this are not likely to be very heavily impacted by any cuts, which are not very likely to happen so long as course numbers remain the same. The positives seem to far outweigh the negatives.

No by Nathan Young

The question of the purpose of education is usually answered by “who is paying for it?” Private
tutors in ancient times taught young men skills they needed to be successful in life. Government-funded education of yore taught generations the skills they needed to be good citizens, combining genuine skills such as literacy with propagandistic interpretations of history and religion in an effort to create solid conceptions of “nation” and “empire” in the minds of the masses. Today, society at least pretends to have a more nuanced view about the purpose of
publicly funded education, but the basic idea of public services serving all of society still stands.

Taking the “who pays, benefits” philosophy of education, then just on those grounds UCD
should prioritise degrees based at least in part on their overall benefit to society, or at least the
taxpayer. About half of UCD’s money comes from the exchequer, and with one of the highest
rates of third level education in the world, Ireland stands to be one of the most enlightened
societies in the world. Clearly we don’t pay taxes so someone else can qualify for a six figure

Obviously there is a benefit to society to have people with readily employable skills such as engineering, medicine, or IT. However the usefulness of these degrees to society does not drive up their value on the job market alone. After all, petrochemical engineering has one of the highest average salaries of any degree in the world, as the fossil fuel industry is one of the largest in the world. To society at large, however, it seems obvious that research scientists looking for cleaner and easier alternatives are far more beneficial as a way to avert as much of the current climate crisis as possible.

A similar pattern emerges with a lot of STEM subjects. The popular myth is that the private
sector creates the innovation, which could lead people to thinking all a public university should
do is train people with the skills needed to get a job. This is the view of The Economist, for
example. However, social media, mobile phones, the internet itself, space travel, GPS,
touchscreens, and unlimited other technologies developed out of research paid for by
governments, often through universities. While this isn’t directly the same as funding degrees
per say, it’s still the case that educating future scientists and researchers, as well as paying for
projects of current post-graduates and PhD candidates, can include a huge amount that isn’t
currently economically viable in the private sector.

Another group who are often questioned much more intensely than STEM students about what
benefit their degrees offer the rest of us are those studying the Liberal Arts. As they don’t lead always directly to jobs in their field, and don’t lead to future donations to the universities very often, what is the point in studying history, or women’s studies? The difficulty in arguing back is it is quite rare to have an individual whose knowledge of these subjects is a benefit to society in and of itself. However, many people find themselves in voting booths or generally interacting with the rest of society at large, and the higher the quality of the average level of education about our history and culture, the better. A public which doesn’t understand its own political institutions, history, and cultural heritage is ripe for being taken advantage of, and so if tax money, through education, is funding better and more enlightened public discourse, a clear social good has been reached.

Rebuttal by Nathan Young

The above argument defending the “Yes” side is largely based on two false premises, leading it to be laced with weird and untrue assertions about both the way things are, and the way they would be. The first false premise is that the university may be funded either by fees or alumni donations primarily. As described in the opening “No” arguments, university funding comes from a wide range of places, but the single largest source of money is the exchequer, which is a stand in for society, or at least taxpayers, as a whole.

The second, far more egregious premise is that the university uses money to benefit students and improve the student experience. Consider the examples given, being the renovations underway around campus and in places such as the Arts Cafe. A cursory browse of the news published in this paper this academic year, or any other, will show how little the university cares for its students and staff. The Arts Cafe was renovated while the Common Room was under attack by President Deeks, who told staff that there were other places to get coffee. Waiting lists for counselling remain long, but the Private Club’s construction is racing ahead. The university currently has money, but plans on having the student centre levy continued if the student body wants to have access to student facilities. Considering all this, it’s probably best not to assume that UCD wants money for the benefit of students.

Much like when craven politicians propose tax breaks to the rich, or corporate welfare in place of public investment, the other side is promising a magic money tree, where by helping the rich get richer, we will all live on their charity and innate goodness. Despite at one stage admitting that courses may well shrink, we’re also told that they may not, and that if a school loses funding, current students somehow won’t be affected as degrees will still be earned. It’s patently nonsensical to believe whether a school has funding doesn’t impact the overall enrollment numbers. Don’t buy a word of it. Actuarial students from Blackrock won’t fund arts degrees. If the decision to fund subjects that benefit society but don’t make a profit isn’t made by universities, or forced on them by the taxpayer, then it’s not going to be made.

Rebuttal by Heather Reynolds

This article makes many valid points with regards degrees that appear less profitable and the wider society, with the impact they have outside of simply paying back into society monetarily. However, it fails to address the immediate impact it would have on university society. By putting more money into promotion of more profitable courses, from the university’s perspective, as well as by increasing amenities in those buildings, they can more likely secure larger, and more frequent donations, allowing the university to grow and continue to fund expansion and rejuvenation plans around campus.

Of course, outside of campus culture there should not be a concept of which degrees are more ‘profitable’, as different degrees create different benefits for society. The university, however, does know which degrees are more likely to create Alumni who donate, and donate regularly, and this is where the university specifically can benefit from prioritising those degrees and faculties. An alumnum who had a good time in college is more likely to donate to their alma mater when the opportunity arises, than one who felt marginalised by the university proper. Thus it makes sense for degrees which create higher earners to be prioritised by the university, as it is in the university’s best interest, and if the university prioritises things as they should, it extends to being in the best interest of the students.

While this argument is valid, it views the issue far too broadly. It’s easy to say that the university should see all degrees equally when you are looking at the whole country for perspective. This question is a local one, and to see if fully, one has to view it in the context of the locality, which in this case, is the university and the university alone. To bring up the taxpayer in this question is to answer the question “should Dublin City Council prioritise ordering fiction or non-fiction books?” with an explanation of how in the eyes of Libraries Ireland, all county council ordering practices should be seen as equal. It is a short sighted diversion from the actual question at hand, as it does not take into account the impact on the university, only the wider country, which has many, many universities from which to make this context. Without looking at the immediate university context, you are only looking at half the picture.