Radical change in store for Irish third-level over next five years due to Covid-19 pandemic

Radical change in store for Irish third-level over next five years due to Covid-19 pandemic

Additional reporting by Ciannan Brennan

How Irish universities and colleges operate, teach, make money and research will face fundamental change over the next five years due to the Covid-19 pandemic.

With remote teaching set to become a mainstay until a widespread roll-out of a Covid-19 vaccine, the business model for higher education is also going to face significant challenges. Increasing numbers of students may opt to defer courses, 'big tech' looks likely to play a much larger role in the sector and we could see fewer institutions.

That is according to Graham Love, the former chief executive of the Higher Education Authority -HEA-, who believes the next two years will act as a ‘live lab experiment’ for higher education and research here. “I think in five years time, we will see lots of students doing substantial parts of their course online,” Mr Love said.

“I think there are going to be quite a few changes afoot. The reality is, nobody particularly wants to hear it, but even 12 to 18 months for a vaccine is a bit optimistic, possibly naive.” 

Protection in the community from the virus could be as far away as 2023, he added. 

Mr Love says that over the next two years, online exams and teaching are going to become a mainstay. 

“Significant course provision online, significant examination and assessment online or remotely - that is fundamentally going to challenge the business models of higher education institutions.” 

He said higher education is costly whether people pay for it directly, or the State pays for it: "It's a worthwhile thing clearly, in my view, but it's an expensive thing.” He questioned whether students are willing to pay, either through the tax system or fees, for a course they will be mostly likely covering the majority of on their computer in their bedrooms.

“Particularly if you're a big fee payer, for example an international student. I think that is a serious question.” 

Early evidence from American universities shows that next year’s deferral rate has already increased to between 12% and 14%, when it is usually somewhere closer to between 3% and 4%. “I suspect we might see something similar here,” said Mr Love

The Irish Universities Association (IUA) previously told the Government it faces a short fall of close to €375 million in 2020 and 2021. “If you have a struggling sector, which is now going to take a hit on revenue that it's created to plug some of the gap in State funding, then that’s going to lead to further struggle," Mr Love said. “If I was running a university over the next few years, I'd certainly be planning. I’d plan for a reduced income level for the next few years for sure,” he said, adding that it would be ‘wonderful’ to see the Government step in with a rescue package.

During Mr Love’s tenure as chief executive of the HEA, it undertook several high-profile investigations into governance within the third-level sector. He resigned abruptly in 2018, later citing his frustrations with the Department of Education’s tight control over the HEA and its work. He is now a consultant partner with Mazars Ireland. 

Radical change in store for Irish third-level over next five years due to Covid-19 pandemic
Handout photo of the Minister for Education and Skills Joe McHugh T.D. arriving for a media briefing in Government Buildings Dublin. (Leon Farrell/PA Wire)

Yesterday, Joe McHugh, the Minister for Education, told the Dáil that the decision to cancel the Leaving Cert exams has allowed the third-level sector to plan for new entrants. He faced tough questions as he made his first appearance since publicly announcing his decision to cancel this summer's written exams.

Also yesterday, after a HIQA report found children are not substantially contributing to the spread of coronavirus, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said 

that "among the safest things that we can do over the next couple of months" is to reopen schools and childcare facilities.

Meanwhile, Ireland's daily announced death toll from Covid-19 has fallen to its lowest levels since the end of March, after 10 further people were announced as having lost their lives.

The figure is the lowest since eight people were reported as having lost their lives on March 30.

The latest figure means that 1,497 Irish people have now died from the virus.

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