Spending freeze angers university presidents

UNIVERSITY presidents have reacted angrily to cuts in a €97 million access and innovation programme introduced by the Department of Education. The department has ordered a spending pause in the Strategic Innovation Fund (SIF) as well as ordering universities not to enter into new SIF contracts.The development means that a majority of initiatives planned are now under threat.One such initiative is the Dublin Region Higher Education Alliance, a joint initiative among third-level colleges, which was rewarded €44 million to reform undergraduate teaching and boost international student recruitment.One of the aims of the SIF fund is to widen access for those from disadvantaged economic backgrounds and for students who are entering higher education who have a disability, particularly if they are entering courses that require high points in the Leaving Certificate examinations.The SIF had been promoted by the government as a fund that would boost teaching standards and the management capacity of universities. The fund also rewards universities that modernise their institutions.Higher Education Authority Chief Executive, Tom Boland, told colleges that they have been advised by the Department of Education that no further SIF contracts should be commissioned.The move has been seen as very worrying for third-level institutions as they have already committed significant resources with the expectation that these would have been supported by the fund. There has also been concern that the cut in funding will undo the previous investment that has already been committed to various projects.UCD President, Dr Hugh Brady argued against the severity of the funding cuts, stating, “we need a major leap forward in funding terms, both to do right by our students and to underpin future jobs and growth. This is urgent.”University presidents explained that without additional funding, teaching posts across the sciences and humanities would be suppressed which will lead to increased class and tutorial size. They added that the lack of funding served to curtail capacity for postgraduate supervision, leading to serious consequences for national targets.Warning that library opening hours would be curtailed, they stated that there would be cutbacks in student services, such as access and medical services. The presidents also warned of a possibility of introducing fees for some student services, while they acknowledged that all but the essential maintenance work would be eliminated on campus buildings.A similar incident occurred five years ago when it was announced that a pause in research funding for universities would occur. The decision was later reversed after intense lobbying by university presidents.The news follows a recent meeting between university presidents and Minister for Education, Batt O’Keefe to discuss the reintroduction of third-level fees. Possible solutions discussed included a student loan scheme similar to one currently operated in Australia.Mr O’Keefe had previously implemented a three per cent payroll cut, which university presidents claimed created a tipping point, which made it impossible to shield students and frontline services from its impact.These funding cuts came after UCD was revealed to have a deficit of €15 million for the academic year 2007-2008, while other universities are experiencing a combined debt of €20 million for the same period.