The Money Minefield of Third-Level

As the major Irish universities slide in the global rankings, Julia O’Reilly turns her attention toward the other area of the Irish third-level: the struggling institutes of technologySometimes the common good gets priority. Yet, as is the unfortunate truth, when it comes to third-level state funding, the common good is often ignored.Five third-level institutions are in dire financial trouble as they struggle to get back on their feet after years of cuts in state funding. Dundalk IT (DkIT), Waterford IT, Letterkenny IT, Galway-Mayo IT and National College of Art and Design (NCAD) in Dublin are all in financial trouble. A new series of targets from the Higher Education Authority (HEA) highlights their already seriously vulnerable position.Across the board, funding to third-level institutes has been cut by around 32 per cent – or over €426m – between 2008 and 2015, and staffing levels have been reduced by approximately 2,000, leaving universities and colleges having to facilitate more with fewer resources.When the financial crisis hit, the general consensus among the public was that continuing onto third-level education was a stable alternative to venturing out into the barren working world. It is no surprise that student numbers have gone up by around 20 per cent since the 2008 crash. This leads to another problem: the HEA reported a ratio of one academic per 19.5 students in 2014, significantly behind the Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development (OECD) average of 14 to 1, and one of the highest in Europe.
ITs generate modest amounts of income compared to what universities haul in. Where UCD brought in €84 million in private income in 2013, Waterford IT took in a mere €17 million…”
There are a host of problems feeding into one another. Fewer academic staff leads to poorer results. At the same time income needs to be sufficient to keep an institute competitive at both a national and international level. They must offer the same facilities as other colleges. This is why many take issue with the new HEA proposals.The HEA asks that each third level institution outline future plans and how they will set themselves apart from others. They must, for the first time, set goals in relation to drop out rates, standards of teaching and learning, research, internationalism and access for disadvantaged groups. If they fail to meet the targets, the HEA can withhold up to ten per cent of funding. Some believe that this could affect academic independence negatively. For one of the listed struggling institutes, ten per cent of the funding could be what saves them from closure.There has been considerable backlash against the HEA’s new measures. In Dundalk IT (DkIT), the academic staff are not taking the cuts lightly. A wave of strikes throughout February are set to oppose funding cuts to the Institute of Technology sector as well as the HEA targets. DkIT vice chairperson Kenneth Sloane calls the HEA proposals “unworkable”. He noted that they “would further damage the quality of education provided by DkIT and have been rightly opposed by staff representatives and DkIT Students’ Union alike.”Reports show Irish higher education is competing “very well internationally” and graduate employment had bounced back to pre-crisis levels. However, these statistics are largely referring to universities like UCD and TCD, which have slipped in international standards but are still viable. Many ITs are not performing in such a manner.Why is that the case? Seven years of spending cuts would certainly take a toll on any institution. Yet the largest in the country are feeling it to less of a degree. This is because larger universities are making up for revenue lost from the dip in state funding by boosting income from private sources. ITs generate modest amounts of income compared to what universities haul in. Where UCD brought in €84 million in private income in 2013, Waterford IT took in a mere €17 million, the largest of any institute of technology.All third level establishments rely on state funding. Universities are often less dependent on the government payments. UCD and TCD attribute 60 per cent of their income from non-exchequer sources. ITs rely heavily on state funding, and they are feeling the effects. The five floundering institutes had been running a budget deficit after the funding reductions put them under severe financial pressure.But it is not all targets and funding cuts that have damaged the financial position of institutions. Indeed, one of the flailing ITs, Galway-Mayo, was forced to run a costly investigation into minor plagiarism that ran from 2011 until 2013. This set them back €436,061, with €1,500 paid to two investigators each day.So can these ITs get by? The answer to that seems to be that they can, but with the greatest of difficulty. State funding is not going to land on their laps. They are going to have to get creative if they want to regain their viability. It is important to note that none of the colleges are in imminent danger of collapse. At the same time, the HEA are placing them under special review and intend to help restore their financial stability.
State funding is not going to land on their laps, they are going to have to get creative if they want to regain their viability.”
Andrew Brownlee of the HEA is working to help them break even. "They are all experiencing operating deficits so we are working towards a three-year financial plan that will allow them to break even again," he said. "That involves a review of all of their operations, the types of courses they are providing, if they can introduce more part-time flexi-time provisions, if they can take in more international students and if they can cut costs in certain areas."Brownlee certainly makes a good point. By attracting more global students they will be on track to regaining revenue. Plus, by hosting part-time courses as well as broadening the range offered, they become more appealing to both national and international prospective learners. It seems many Irish institutes are savvy to this. Third-level colleges have a strategy to considerably increase the international student figures over the coming five years. This would inject a further €720 million into the economy and provide much needed revenue for the struggling institutions. However, it remains to be seen whether Ireland’s ITs will flounder or flourish in the coming years.