Calls for action on college funding

Minister for Education Richard Bruton.

Radical reforms of how third-level colleges share public investment will have little effect unless the Government decides soon how to deal with a funding crisis in the sector, the experts who designed the reforms have warned.

The additional funding needed by universities and institutes of technology will be as much as €600m a year by 2020, according to the Cassells Report published by Education Minister Richard Bruton in July 2016.

However, he has insisted on awaiting the deliberations of a divided Oireachtas Education Committee.

The cross-party committee has failed to reach agreement on whether students or taxpayers should bear the brunt of the cost, which will rise to an extra €1bn a year by 2030.

The absolute need to match increasing student numbers with increased investment is emphasised by an expert panel whose proposals have been backed by the Cabinet.

They are designed to make the higher education system more responsive to economic and societal needs, as well as making colleges more accountable for how they spend public money.

However, the changes will require increased targeted investment in order to generate the maximum impact, said the panel chaired by Bríd Horgan, Bank of Ireland Pension Fund chair and a member of Dublin City University governing authority.

“Our recommendations can deliver much-needed change but can only be fully implemented if supported by increased investment,” they wrote.

Their report was commissioned by the Higher Education Authority (HEA), which administers over €1bn a year in public funding to more than 20 colleges.

“We believe that the recommendations in this review deliver the reform sought, but will require increased targeted investment to maximise their impact,” wrote the expert panel, whose report has been approved by the Cabinet.

It is being published today by Mr Bruton and minister of state higher education Mary Mitchell O’Connor, but the fine detail of several of the recommendations have yet to decide.

For example, the additional investment that would go to colleges for running higher-cost science and technology courses, or the increased funding for having disadvantaged students, or running part-time or other flexible learning courses, have all yet to be decided.

Further discussions have yet to decide also the level to which courses in a number of disciplines might be better resourced. These include areas such as computer science or health profession degrees with lab-based and work-based training, or teacher education and pharmacy courses in which recent reforms have not been reflected in the funding colleges get to run them.

Among the recommendations the experts said are conditional on extra overall funding to the sector, whether from public investment or student fees, are an innovation funds and a performance fund to reward colleges that excel in particular areas.

The possibility of including capital funding for maintaining buildings and equipment within each college’s annual allocation is also contingent on additional investment.

The Department of Education said it looks forward to receiving the committee’s recommendations.


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