DCU is “operating at the edge of sustainability,” President of the university Prof Brian MacCraith has admitted.
In an interview with The College View, the DCU President spoke of how the university is trying to protect DCU students from the impact of the cuts but admitted modules are being dropped because of a cut in government funding to DCU.
Government funding to DCU was cut by 4.25 per cent in 2013 and MacCraith said “for the past number of years, we would have had seven per cent one year, four per cent another and so on.”
“Ultimately student numbers are increasing and exchequer funding is decreasing so you have two diverging curves.”
MacCraith is keen to point out that although the student contribution fee has been increasing year on year, the money doesn’t stay with DCU. “Very few students realise that with the student contribution as that goes up, the government subtracts that from our budget so that money hasn’t come to us. We’re not even getting it to use for students, it’s coming off.”
The funding cuts and increase in student numbers means that programmes have taken a hit.
“At some stage you have to impact on quality and no one wants to talk too much about quality but it’s down to class sizes, it’s down to can you offer all modules, I mean we have to cut back on some modules in the university,” MacCraith said.
Despite modules being dropped from some courses, MacCraith insists that certain schools aren’t being prioritised over others. He explained that the same formula that’s used by the government for allocating funding to each third-level institution is used to allocate funding to each school and faculty in DCU. The funding is allocated based on student numbers “so schools that are increasing in numbers will do better because it’s numbers driven”.
The impact of the funding cuts on student services was visible this year with the increase in the fee to see the on-campus doctor in the health centre by 100 per cent.
MacCraith said it was a “simple mathematical consequence, if you haven’t got the money then you’re going to have to share the burden of pain” but it wasn’t an easy decision to make. “We realise the difficulty for students, many students have part-time jobs to sustain themselves so any decision to increase the burden on students from a financial perspective, we take those decisions most reluctantly.”
The argument against cuts to the third-level sector is “a constant battle” for MacCraith and other third-level presidents, and MacCraith said the key message now is “you cannot build prosperity for Ireland if the quality of higher education starts to suffer by virtue of decreases in funding”.
MacCraith said: “Until the sustainability issue is addressed the slide in funding is going to increase so it’s going to make maintaining quality increasingly more difficult so breaking even is a challenge and none of us like saying this but that’s the fact.”
DCU’s President isn’t hopeful Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn will turn his attention to solving the funding crisis in third-level in the next few years. “The political indications are the minister is not going to do anything in the lifetime of this government. Whenever we raise it we’re told there’s more savings to be got and so on.”
Mental health awareness was a huge focus during the recent Students’ Union elections and helping students is a “huge priority” for MacCraith as well.
“I think one of the most challenging parts of the job is realising you’ve 12,000 students and many of them are dealing with stress. I’ve been hugely impressed with how students have actually dealt with it themselves in terms of their openness and dialogue around it.
“We’ve added more councillors in whenever there was peaks in the need. In many ways you can never do enough, there’s always people who are going to be delayed but we have been exploring ways we can bring in other organisations that can actually augment that.
The university is developing a Student Leadership and Skills Centre which is being seen as a proactive way of helping students dealing with mental health issues.
“You can be reactive and sometimes it’s too late and you can have tragic situations and we have had tragic situations over the past number of years so we’ve made a commitment to be pro-active.
“The key thing that we’ll be trying to impart there is mental resilience and it’s a bit like physical fitness in a sense that when you’re physically fit you can take a wallop and you can rebound from it, similarly in a mental situation, we want to impart resilience to students through well-established techniques.”
During February’s Union of Students in Ireland (USI) referendum campaign, MacCraith made a point of not giving his views on the national student organisation. “I’ve alway felt that I shouldn’t make a strong view on this because either way, it’s a unnecessary influence, it’s a student decision.”
“I can see that a bigger organisation has more clout, they can provide training and so on but I know there are arguments to both sides, it was amazing that it came down to one vote, it shows the power of democracy.”
He’s unsure if USI membership will change how students interact with the university but thinks it will increase political engagement on campus.
“There’s not great evidence of political activity on campus and this may increase it and I think anything that increases engagement with the world and discussion and debate is good. It’s one thing that could be said about DCU, perhaps we could have more political activity but again, it’s a student choice.
Would he like to see more political activity in DCU? “What I’m hugely impressed at is the engagement with volunteering and social issues by our students. I think it would be interesting to see more engagement in political issues as well and more debate around them. It’s not so much political activity but more debate around the bigger issues, global politics, national politics.”
Image Credit: Sean Conroy