MICHAEL CLIFFORD: It's curtains if we don’t invest in education

Serious funding is required if the State is to produce the kind of education needed for a... dynamic economy, writes Michael Clifford

A new arrival from Mars during the week would probably conclude that third-level education in this country is thriving. Should the Martian have an interest in the topic, she could have tuned into the Taoiseach opening a new university in Dublin.

And not just any old university, but a technological university. Look at us in all our hi-tech splendour, catching the zeitgeist, ahead of the game.

At the event on Tuesday, Mr Varadkar was asked about the issue in third-level education that dare not speak its name. What about funding? What about resourcing the third-level sector in a manner befitting an open, developed country heavily reliant on the quality of its graduates? What about the moolah?

“The funding is coming,” he said at the opening ceremony. “We have an increase of €50m every year in funding for higher education. That is for running costs, staff salaries and facilities. Also, Ireland Project 2040 provides for a massive multi-billion euro investment in higher education.”

Yet the gap in funding between now and 2021, according to the analysis of a high level group set up by the Government, is around 10 times what the Taoiseach says is being put in annually.

The spin machine has been rolled out anytime that the issue that dare not speak its name attempts to get a word in. Last month it emerged that Irish universities had fallen far in the World University Rankings. Trinity College lost its status as the country’s only top-100 university and five others tumbled down the ranking.

The response from the minister of state for higher education, Mary Mitchell O’Connor, was to focus on how to tackle the rankings system, rather than whether or not the result was linked to a drop in standards.

“I believe it is important that, working together with the university sector, we develop a deeper understanding of the key drivers of Ireland’s rankings,” she said at the time.

We need to be able to explain better the factors driving performance, highlighting where we believe the approach could be improved.

In other words, the fall in rankings is a matter of communication rather than a reflection of a drop in standards.

There are a number of issues affecting third-level education, but funding is at its heart. Third-level funding is not an issue that instinctively floats the boat of voters.

There are no votes to be harvested in producing a plan to ensure that tomorrow’s students are educated in a manner befitting their suitability for life and work. Hard-pressed parents do not, on the doorstep, harangue candidates about the quality of education at third level. They do not demand that the Government do something about it.

Yet, anybody with the slightest interest in public policy is aware of how critical the funding of third-level education is.

Listen to Ashoka Mody, the IMF’s man in Ireland back in the bail-out days.

In a recent visit to his old stomping ground, he pointed out that education is key to this country staying in half-decent shape.

“The Asian nations will have the best universities,” he said about the near future. “They already have some of the world’s best schools. Europe in general has fallen 10 or 15 years behind the Asians and the periphery is a generation behind. The core focus has to be on education. Where there are well-educated people, the rest happens in an organic way.”

This is where the politics comes in. Serious funding is required if the State is to produce the kind of education needed for an open, allegedly dynamic economy. Yet everybody in politics reaches for a barge-pole when the issue comes into view. The solution is there for all to see. In fact, there are three solutions, representing the options that the government can choose from to address the problems.

These were laid out in a detailed report compiled by the expert group cited above. Chaired by Peter Cassells, the former secretary general of the Irish Congress for Trade Unions, it was highly praised for its work and came to the conclusion that €600m needs to be invested by 2021 and €1bn by 2030. A further €100m investment is required to “deliver a more efficient system of student financial aid”.

The options proposed were:

  • Abolish the current student contribution system – which involves around half of all third-level students paying €3,000 a year — and create a predominantly state funding system;
  • Continue with current system and increase state funding;
  • Introduce a loan system for students along the lines of the scheme that operates in Australia.

All of the options would require a major injection of money, either from central exchequer funds or through further taxes. The former would involve taking money from big-spending sectors such as health or other areas of education. The latter would require more taxes, which goes against practically all political instincts right now.

The loan scheme would probably be the fairest option as it is income contingent. Here, though, there would probably be the biggest immediate political backlash.

Mr Cassells’ group reported in April 2016. The report stated that funding was in “crisis” and an “urgent” response was required.

Nothing has been done. The Government conveniently handed it over to the Oireachtas Education Committee which has been humming and hawing for the last two years, its members quite obviously unable to bring themselves to choose between unpopular options.

This has been designated a can to be kicked down the road beyond the next election into devil-may-care territory.

There are issues around the spending of money in the third-level sector. In recent years, much has emerged, particularly through the media, about the poor use or misuse of funds in some institutions. Less than rigorous efforts to run some institutions on the most efficient basis have also been highlighted.

There is the impression in some quarters that those employed in the third level have well-paid, cushy numbers. While this claim may have substance in some instances, it certainly does not apply to the younger cohort of academics today, many of whom struggle for years in temporary and insecure employment.

But the issue of the paucity of overall funding is above and beyond any value for money concerns in some corners of the sector. There is no sign of it being addressed. In the absence of a radical plan, the decline in standards will be slow. And when the realisation finally dawns that the country is in serious trouble, today’s politicians will be long gone.

I can see Mr Varadkar, long after he is retired, being asked why he didn’t do something about it. In reply he will no doubt refer to the day he opened Ireland’s first technological university, and what more could anybody ask for.


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