A striking feature of the current Covid crisis is the emergence of a new group of scientific experts on our television screens, radios, and newspapers.
From epidemiologists to immunologists and virologists to biochemists, some academics have left their laboratories to become household names.
We have come to rely on the expertise of our Chief Medical Officer and the group of experts on the National Public Health Emergency Team (NPHET) steering us through this pandemic. Our healthcare frontline nurses and doctors have been heroic in applying their skills and dedication.
The experts upon whom we have come to rely so much, whether in decision-making or caring for sick patients, demonstrate the value of our education system and, particularly, our third level sector to us all.
We need to be mindful that this is not something we can sustain without adequate funding.
Just as we need highly trained people in the current Covid battle, our longer term economic and social recovery will also rely on high skilled graduates, a strong research capability in social and physical sciences, and informed policy making.
A significant factor in attracting foreign direct investment is the quality and quantity of our graduates. Irish SMEs also rely on well-trained college graduates and it has been shown consistently that entrepreneurs tend to have third level qualifications.
In addition, our universities and ITs are central to Ireland’s science and research infrastructure, which has substantial economic and social benefits.
However, the importance of our universities and colleges to our attempts to beat Covid and to rebuilding our economy and society post-Covid is not reflected in the refusal of the Government to support the sector with adequate funding.
The higher education sector is facing a crippling financial crisis that threatens to undermine the sector for several years. This crisis is not solely due to the effects of the pandemic.
Public funding for the sector fell by 40% since 2008. Over the same period, student enrolment has grown by a quarter. The dramatic reduction in exchequer funding forced Irish universities to develop new sources of revenue. The increase in international students came as a response to this decline.
The Cassells Report in 2016 estimated that Irish universities needed an extra €600m a year by 2021 and an extra €1bn annually to 2030. That report has been long-fingered and we are now four years on without a decision being made. In the meantime, the sector has sustained the growth in student numbers seen over the last decade.
There is hope in the sector that the appointment of Simon Harris as Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science will see an increase in the attention directed at our colleges from government and that this attention will finally see action on addressing the financial crises, both the immediate and longer term ones.
The Irish Universities Association has estimated that the sector faces a shortfall of about €500m this year and next year due to the effects of Covid. This comes on top of the funding cuts in the previous decade.
My university, UCC, had almost 3,000 international students from over 100 different countries. A postgraduate programme on which I taught last year had just over 40 students, of which half were international. These international students paid fees of €18,000. It will be very difficult for the university to replace that lost income in the short-term.
UCC entered the last academic year with a deficit. This has increased by multiples due to the probable loss of income this year and next from lost international student fee income, rental income from on-campus accommodation and commercial revenues. There is also a big worry that Irish students may choose to defer their college offers next year due to uncertainty about the student experience.
At the same time, UCC and all of our higher education institutions, need to invest further in training and technology to be able to deliver courses remotely in line with Covid guidelines.
The financial impact of the Covid crisis, on top of the existing funding problems, has the potential to turn a short-term shock into longer term woe. A recruitment freeze and the loss of essential part-time and contract staff threatens the quality of our institutions.
The Government should recognise the importance of the sector and the need to make a decision, which Cassells called for, on a sustainable funding model.
This has to be done now for the medium-to-long-term viability of the sector. In addition, one of the first things Minister Harris needs to address is the immediate huge hole in our colleges finances. We need help to get over this crisis. A failure to invest now would be a false economy.