STUDENTS going to college for the first time after this year’s Leaving Certificate examination face into a period where universities continue to be underfunded in relative terms by a government that has, once again, put the whole question of its future level of financial input to third-level on the long finger.
Earlier this month, Education Minister Richard Bruton told the Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills that an economic analysis of options for the funding of third-level education would have to wait until next year, at least, to even commence and it is understood that this is also contingent on getting European Commission resources to carry it out. Minister Bruton feels that the type of detailed analysis requested by the Education Committee of the report, ‘Investing in National Ambition: A Strategy for Funding Higher Education,’ carried out by an expert group under the chairmanship of Peter Cassells, requires outside overview and insights. Known as the Cassells Report and published back in 2016, this report recommended that an extra €600m a year be invested in higher education by 2021 to maintain quality, rising to €1bn annually by 2030.
The government is kicking for touch as it is at a loss to figure out where all this extra money is going to come from. Obviously, the government will have to come up with a lot of it, but it begs the vexed question as to whether students will have to contribute more with the political hot potato of student loans inevitably arising once again.
It is reaching out to the Commission’s Structural Reform Support Service (SRSS) to carry out the type of comprehensive review of the Cassells Report recommendations that the Education Committee wants and both Minister Bruton and his Minister of State for Higher Education, Mary Mitchell O’Connor, have been briefing the SRSS and are encouraging the Committee to have an input into this also. The ideal scenario would be political consensus so that a neutral examination, free from undue influence by vested interests, can be achieved. By the time the SRSS reports back, the current government may not even be in place, however the shortfall in funding will still need to be met.
In a recent article in The Irish Times, Jim Miley, director general of the Irish Universities Association, traced how the financial problems in the sector had evolved and outlined the challenges for funding higher education, especially by the end of the next decade when demand is seat to peak. During the financial crisis, core funding to universities was cut, even though the number of students entering the higher education sector continued to increase, but this was offset by badly-needed efficiencies and greater resourcefulness in the colleges.
Now, however, the scope for efficiencies is almost totally diminished, so the government needs to organise more funding. Mr Miley acknowledged that Budget 2018 had brought a welcome but modest initial increase in core funding for higher-level education, but warned that demand for university education will continue to rise, as will the need for financing it.
His most telling analysis was that the number of students completing second level will peak in 2029 and is projected to be 27% higher than in 2015. ‘These students are currently in second class in primary school. Many of today’s seven- and eight-year-olds will be seeking access to third-level education at a point of peak demand,’ Mr Miley warned. ‘If the funding problem is not fixed, there may not be places available for some of them.’
That certainly should not happen. These children have every right to expect they will be able to avail of college education, if they work hard at their studies in the meantime. Any democracy worth its salt must plan ahead and provide for this, but one has to question whether the current government is up to the task in this regard, especially given that the Cassells Report was published two years ago and won’t be properly analysed for at least another year, leading one to wonder when tangible action to address the situation will begin; will it be a case of too little too late?
In the meantime, another important part of Minister Bruton’s portfolio is the skills area, which is trying to play even bigger catch-up and has a severe shortage because of the dropping of apprenticeship schemes in many trades during the economic downturn in the wake of the collapse of the construction industry. The resulting skills shortages threaten the achievement of housing construction and infrastructural works targets under the much-hyped National Development Plan, Project Ireland 2040, and other targets currently in place.
It’s not all necessarily about college for second-level school leavers and, even though Minister Bruton inherited the problems in the education and skills sectors, and is regarded as a very capable operator, his own skills will be seriously tested as he endeavours to solve them in a timely manner.