This week, 56,000 students took their first Leaving Cert exam. Most of those young people plan to continue their education in a third-level college or institute. There are 225,628 students, supported by 24,000 staff, in those institutions. The sector has, for years, struggled with growing student numbers unmatched by increases in government funding.
This imbalance may be at the heart of this week’s report from the global third-level comparison process, U-Multirank, which showed that only two Irish universities — Maynooth and the University of Limerick — did not slide down world rankings. This litany of decline recorded that, for example, Dublin’s Trinity College fell out of the top 100 category, to 104th. UCD fell from 168th to 193rd; NUI Galway dropped 17 places, to 260th. UCC recognised that its drop, from 283rd to 338th, was disappointing, but pointed out that the rating was inconsistent with other evaluations.
These rankings, and our declared ambition to have a world-class third-level sector by 2026, are in such conflict that the question of third-level funding cannot be avoided. That a lecture hall full of senior academics has warned, over an extended period, that our institutions face a tightening funding crisis, just confirms what has been obvious for some years.
Despite that, and despite the hopes of those young people sitting exams this week, the political system prevaricates, kicking the can further down the road. It took 35 years to resolve issues around the Eighth Amendment, because politicians were afraid to make decisions that would inevitably be divisive. We are, it seems, caught in the same choking snare over third-level funding. No politician wants to be the one to increase college fees and no Government wants to be the one to introduce a student loan system, but all the while the capacity of our colleges diminishes and they fall in world rankings. Next month marks the second anniversary of the publication of the Peter Cassells-chaired, expert group’s report on third-level funding, which was then referred to the Oireachtas education committee.
Education Minister Richard Bruton has (seasoned political player that he is) insisted he will not act on the Cassells report until that committee reaches a consensus. That objective has been delayed time after time, as the government members of the committee change again and again. It may be a tad cynical to suggest this is a deliberate strategy to avoid having to make a difficult decision, but it is hard not to think it. That feeling is strengthened as the committee blames Mr Bruton’s department for what it says are delays in providing an economic analysis of options — students paying higher fees, but getting loans and repaying them when they begin earning; a significantly higher investment from the public purse; or students continuing to pay €3,000 a year for tuition, while the State pays more than it does today.
It would be surprising if an election did not intervene in this process, so any decision will be deferred once again and our colleges will continue to struggle. These are the politics of cowardice and do no-one, least of all the students, any favours. It’s long past the time to man up and make a decision.