Universities insist they need greater flexibility around staffing and more public money to deliver the changes needed to meet the Government’s ambitions for the education system.
A six-point charter launched by the Irish Universities Association (IUA) commits the seven colleges to delivering on Government aspirations to have Europe’s best education system by 2026.
They plan significant changes as the sector expects to cater for around 25,000 of the 40,000 additional students estimated to be registered annually in the third-level sector by 2030.
The changes are promised through targets for the next decade to include 30% more research graduates, increasing social access to their degree programmes by 30%, and more flexible ways to deliver higher education such as more lifelong learning.
However, in return, the universities also want more flexibility to replace many of the restrictions in place since the recession began.
Patrick O’Shea, University College Cork president and IUA chairman, said universities are committed to accountability and meeting targets.
Sometimes accountability and control are confused. The world’s best universities are the ones with the greatest flexibility,” said Prof O’Shea.
“What we need is the flexibility in individual institutions to work creatively toward meeting those targets in a way that meets the needs of those institutions.”
He said third-level institutions need more than just the freedom, for example, to hire leading researchers or academics at pay rates above those approved by the Government.
“The employment control framework is very restrictive, not just on total numbers we can employ, but also in other details which often make it difficult to employ the people we need,” he said.
The IUA stresses that the provisions in its charter are more than about the question of funding, something Prof O’Shea said has dominated public discussion on higher education in recent years.
“The charter underpins a commitment to substantial change,” he said. “It calls out the challenges. It identifies solutions. It puts the meat on the bones of the Government’s ambition.
As a society, we must commit to and enable this change. This charter captures our commitment and it is now incumbent on the Government to meet the challenge.
One of the charter’s six principles is to secure increased State investment in higher education for each of the next three budgets, of €150m, €180m, and €230m.
“While the Government has commenced reversing the funding decline, long-awaited policy decisions on revamping the overall structure of funding have been delayed, despite clear options proposed by Government-appointed expert groups,” the IUA charter states.
“The Government should make a definitive decision on a sustainable funding model for higher education based on the clear advice from its own expert groups if it is to prevent the risks to our economic competitiveness.”
Other elements of the charter include a deeper engagement with industry, but also more chances for students to work with civic society organisations.
For serving and future university staff, there is a commitment to increased equality and diversity, but also to agree a clear and secure career path for researchers.