Third-level in crisis: We have learnt nothing from past errors

After years of cuts, consultation, reports and deliberations, politics has done nothing to stem the third-level funding crisis, writes Education Correspondent Niall Murray 

There is a crisis in higher education funding, but you would be hard-pushed to believe it listening to Irish politicians.

In the last decade — until it was reversed this year — a series of annual cuts saw State investment in higher education cut by a third. This drop in funding equated to close to €500m in annual income to the seven universities, 14 institutes of technology, and the handful of other colleges also directly funded by the taxpayer.

At the same time student numbers have continued to rise, but increases in fees charged to undergraduate students (currently €3,000 a year) was not even reflected in the colleges’ balance sheets; the respective Governments simply reduced their investment by the amount of additional funding raised, giving zero net benefit to college services, staffing, or student supports.

None of this suddenly transpired overnight and the deteriorating funding situation prompted Ruairi Quinn as education minister to set up an expert group to come up with policy proposals in July 2014. It was chaired by former Irish Congress of Trade Unions (ICTU) secretary general Peter Cassells, and reported to Mr Quinn’s successor Jan O’Sullivan within the proposed 18-month time frame.

It was July 2016 before the public got to see the fruits of their deliberations, however, and the political landscape had changed. Instead of the Cassells’ recommendations going directly to government, Education Minister Richard Bruton insisted that political consensus was essential before he could offer the Government a recommendation on how to bridge the gap.

And so far, that has not happened — and certainly does not look like happening anytime soon, either.

The Oireachtas Education Committee was the forum in which Mr Bruton wanted the consensus position reached. It held hearings with various interested parties between last November and May, and has made clear it did not wish to be restricted only to the options presented in Cassells.

The first two of these options was to either ‘significantly’ or ‘considerably’ increase State funding for third-level education, depending on whether it was decided to retain or abolish the current €3,000 student contribution.

The third was to increase state funding but also to raise fees, only not to charge students up-front. This study-now, pay later model is already operating in the UK and US, although British Prime Minister Theresa May just this weekend announced a major review in light of difficulties around the average fee loan debts facing graduates there of close to €40,000.

Taoiseach Leo Varadkar suggested in a speech last week at Trinity College Dublin that he is open to the idea of a funding scheme that includes higher fees which students would not fall liable for until after graduating and reaching a certain income threshold.

While he said he would not support a loans scheme where debts would reach the €30,000 to €40,000 faced by US and UK graduates, such fee levels were never envisaged in the first place by what Cassells proposed. In other words, he was ruling out nothing that was actually on the table for discussion politically.

Fianna Fáil says it has yet to be convinced of the merits of a student loan scheme — but that is not the same as ruling it out entirely, either.

When Richard Bruton announced his first education budget a year ago, he clearly signalled (although did not acknowledge) that he was beginning a route toward the loans option. A moderate three-year increase in Exchequer funding of €160m would commence in 2017 with an extra €36m, and discussions would begin with employers about another proposal by Cassells to see businesses make higher direct contributions to the colleges that produce their workers.

It left the way open for him to come back in a year’s time saying that the Government would pay more, so too would employers, therefore it would only be fair to ask students themselves to do so once they reap the benefits of their higher qualifications.

In the meantime, however, no agreement has been established on the question of whether to significantly increase taxpayer or student contributions, or what balance of each, or how.

But Mr Bruton’s position remains that nothing will go to Cabinet without agreement from the committee.

“This is an area where broad political consensus is needed on the future direction and Minister Bruton will be working to build that consensus,” a Department of Education spokesperson told the Irish Examiner.

Even a week before Budget 2018, Fianna Fáil education spokesperson Thomas Byrne has told the Irish Examiner, the Government side in budget discussions with his party have not yet raised the issue of increasing employer contributions to the National Training Fund (NTF). Even though Mr Bruton and Finance Minister Paschal Donohoe have held consultations on a proposal to increase the amount invested by employers — essentially through an increase to employers’ PRSI — it is not clear if that will be announced in Budget 2018.

And even if it does, the most it would raise if increased by 0.1% each year for three years is about €170m over 2016 levels (not the €200m that Department of Education and Mr Bruton insist on publicly citing, which is the excess over 2015 NTF income that might accrue).

Fianna Fáil is calling on the minister to invest an extra €65m in higher education next year from that source. It also wants a further €44m added to the amount paid from the Exchequer in 2018.

The Irish universities told us last week, however, that close to €70m would be needed next year just to allow them maintain services at current levels while still catering for another increase in students, as well as to fund grants for those who need financial support. Adding whatever the other third-level colleges need to do the same would leave little, if any, change from the €100m additional budget put forward by the main opposition party.

On the basis of all of this, neither Fianna Fáil or those in the official government benches in the Dáil chamber have decided anything on the sustainable funding of higher education — nearly two years since the Cassells report was finalised and 15 months after its publication.

It will be interesting to see how many more coalitions, confidence-and-supply agreements, minority governments or other forms of political partnership will dance around this question while still telling us that the effects on the quality of third-level education in Ireland is a risk, rather than a reality.

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