The recent Budget drew criticism from all areas of third-level education due to a lack of planned capital investment in our national universities. The Union of Students of Ireland (USI) in particular condemned the fiscal decisions of the government as they claimed that the allocation of €500 million towards a ‘rainy day fund’, should have instead been used to aid a damaged third-level system. In the previous edition of the University Express, the ‘Save Our Spark’ campaign was highlighted, explaining the role that it hopes to play in encouraging the public to express their frustration over the lack of executive funding for our universities.
A key figure behind the campaign is Director General of the Irish Universities Association, Jim Miley. In his role, Mr Miley leads a process of developing and enhancing the position of universities as key agents of growth and influence in the Irish economy, and the social and cultural life of the country. During a recent conference in Cork involving Ireland’s seven universities, the Director General found time to talk exclusively to the University Express, giving an in-depth analysis of his vision for the country’s highest level of education.
In reference to the outcome of the Budget, Mr Miley said that the lack of investment came as no major surprise. “We had a good indication that there would be modest funding made available in the budget. We had asked for a much bigger change in terms of an increase but that didn’t come. We were also looking for specific funds for capital refurbishment of facilities in universities, for labs and so on, which haven’t been looked at for over a decade but there was nothing in the budget to address that. We weren’t particularly surprised but we still recognise that this is a long term issue and it’s important that we keep it highlighted”.
The economic recession had a severe impact on funding for universities in Ireland, as governments made hefty cut-backs. Investment that would have been provided for third-level institutions instead had to be re-routed to primary education, as the country had to make allowances for a surge in the number of young children starting school for the very first time. This not only affected the universities themselves, but also students, who found their annual contribution fees rise from approximately €1000 to €3000. In fact, funding per student has dropped by 50%, from €10000 in 2008 to just €5000 today. According to the Mr Miley, even the 2008 figure would place Ireland very low down the European average rankings. “In 2008/2009, we were still by no means top of the pile. We were below the EU and OECD average. Sweden and Finland currently spend about €20000 per student and many other countries spend double if not triple the amount that we currently do today”.
By 2021, an extra €600 million will be needed in the system. However, according to Jim, this will not be used to lower student contribution levels for the time being. “Well first we really just have to stop the bleeding because that’s what is happening at the moment, it’s a bleed. That €600 million will get us to about €6,500 per student, which sees us moving in the right direction. Whether the fees goes down is up to the government and universities to decide but I see no prospect in the €3000 being reduced until the funding is up to a certain level. At the moment we are below the waterline but when that is fixed I think student fees could be discussed”.
The cash injection is badly needed to boost the area of teaching and learning, according to the Director General. “There is a significant issue in that area. Class sizes for certain faculties have increased substantially. The amount of tutoring that students get is now more limited. The extra attention in terms of one-to-one interactions is stretched. The student to lecturer ratio is about 21:1 whereas before it was more like 17 or 18:1 and the EU average is about 15:1 so it’s self-evident that where you have limited resources stretched across more students then learning is limited”. From the outside looking in, people will inevitably point to modern infrastructure which has been built for our universities in recent times and question whether there really is a capital deficiency. However, a lot of the funds used for such development comes from foreign shores. “There are many facilities that are not fit for purpose anymore, like out of date laboratories, but the challenge for universities is that these are seen alongside shiny new buildings. However, most of the money used there is borrowed and comes from the European Investment Bank. Sometimes the public and the political system would say ‘well if you’re able to pay for a €10 million building then everything must be alright’ but it’s not all alright because, as I say, that money has to be paid back and if you look at our seven universities they have about €700 million borrowed between them and the interest for those loans comes directly out of the core capital expenditure budget” Mr Miley explains.
Universities all over the country have seen their rankings fall on an international stage and this has been linked to a lack of investment. While the calculation of these results can often be far from perfect, they still matter as Jim explains. “The rankings mean something because they are noticed. They are noticed by people who want to come to Ireland, they are noticed by philanthropists who might want to donate money and they are noticed by parents who are there to advise their sons and daughters. One crucial metric used in the rankings is the student – lecturer ratio and as our ratios have widened we have fallen down the list”.
However, there remains some optimism for the Director General, who believes that the message for urgent investment will get through to the government. “It’s not just us saying that we need investment. The Taoiseach in his first address to the Dáil in June 2017 said that universities need to be given greater autonomy and need investment. We have IBEC who highlighted that higher education investment was one of three priorities, they specifically identified that. We need these sentiments to be backed in order to address the funding”. He continued by saying, “this is manageable but we need to act now. I liken the situation to this, the house is not burning down but we are smelling the smoke, and if we don’t address this soon we’re going to do some serious damage”.
Just 24 hours prior to our encounter with Mr Miley, a new Minister for Education was appointed to the government. When asked what he would say to Minister McHugh, the Director General of the IUA replied, “what we will say to the new Minister is that this is about the future talent and innovation for the foundation of the economy. It’s not just about the graduates but also the research and innovation that happens across universities in Ireland and if we don’t invest in that now we don’t sow the seeds for the next crop of talent and creativity that comes out of Ireland. This is about creating and investing in the bedrock for the future of our country and the economy, and that is the message we will be putting to the Minister”.
Addressing the accommodation crisis, Mr Miley agreed that there is a serious problem with housing in general. However, he did point to a specific issue which he believes is affecting students in particular and that is the unrestricted proliferation that Airbnb currently operates in. “Many cities around the world have restricted the use of Airbnb but we haven’t here and that to me directly impacts student accommodation. Many of the properties that would have been available to students in the past are now under the control of Airbnb and that has excluded students from being able to rent them. I was disappointed that the government didn’t act on that but they are still considering it and that will definitely be something that we will be putting pressure on”.
It seems that for now changes to our third-level education system will be incremental. While the economy continues to grow, one has to question the strategy of the government in its decision to hold back on funding for universities. The ‘rainy day’ is now, as the Union of Students of Ireland proclaimed last month and as the smoke continues to rise, the consequences for education in Ireland could prove to be fatal.