A quality education: the third-level funding crisis

Over the past number of years, Ireland’s universities have been dropping in various world rankings. Since the beginning of the recession, government funding for Ireland’s third-level sector has been cut a considerable amount. Many, including DCU’s own President, believe the two are linked and the funding crisis is having negative consequences for our third-level institutions.

Government funding is divided among Irish third-level institutions by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) using the Recurrent Grant Funding Model. The main funding comes from the core grant, which is divided amount third-level institutions based on how many students the institution has and what they are studying.

In 2013, the core grant funding for each higher education institution in Ireland was cut by an average of €3.7 million.

Figures from the Higher Education Authority reveal funding to Ireland’s universities in 2013 was cut by an average of €7.9 million compared with 2012. University of Limerick has seen the biggest reduction in funding out of all the universities with a 16 per cent cut in funding, from €74.7 million in 2012 to €62.5 million in 2013.

Dundalk IT is the worst affected among the Institutes of Technology; funding has been reduced by almost 20 per cent, from €26.1 million in 2012 to €21.1 million in 2013.

In fact, the only institution to see its funding increase is Institution of Technology Carlow, by a mere 1.46 per cent.

Allocations for 2014 will not be finalised until the end of 2014, but Minister Quinn announced in the 2014 budget that government funding to the higher education sector will be €939 million for the year, €73 million less than what was allocated in 2013.

With such massive reductions in funding to third-level institutions, the cuts are having knock-on effects on programmes being provided by institutions, the quality of teaching and the services being provided to students by the institutions.

Mike Jennings of the Irish Federation of University Teachers believes the funding crisis in the third-level sector is hollowing out the higher education system, saying “On the outside it looks as if nothing has changed but on the inside it’s very vulnerable to collapse.

“For instance a lecturer can lecture just as easily to 100 students as to 50 students but there’s no way a lecturer can deal with small groups and correct 100 examination papers as opposed to 50, deal with individual problems, deal with foreign students, deal with the students who need more attention. In other words, only on the surface is the system the same. In every other respect, the system is suffering very badly and it’s time for the state to wake up.”

Here in DCU the cuts are having a visible effect on student services. DCU has seen its funding drop 4.25 per cent to €50.4 million in 2013.

At the beginning of this academic year, the “unsustainable financial position” of the DCU Health Centre as a result of cuts to DCU caused the fee to see the on-campus doctor to double from €10 to €20.

President of DCU, Professor Brian MacCraith said the decision to increase the fee was a “simple mathematical consequence, if you haven’t got the money then you’re going to have to share the burden of pain”.

IT services in one of the world’s top 50 universities under 50, according to the QS University Rankings, are also being affected by funding cuts, hitting students working on compulsory assignments. The Information Systems & Services (ISS) in the university said despite efforts to fix IT problems affecting students, cuts were having a negative impact on the department and carrying out repairs was a slow process.

MacCraith has admitted the university is “operating at the edge of sustainability” and is trying to protect DCU students from the impact of the cuts, “but ultimately student numbers are increasing and exchequer funding is decreasing so you have two diverging curves.

“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.”

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.

“You need so many staff for so many students to actually deliver a good quality education and we’re sliding in that regard and that’s why alternative funding mechanisms have to be found.”

But is there a solution to the funding crisis?

One alternative funding model currently being looked at by some, including MacCraith, is a student loans system used in the US and Latin America. It would allow students to agree to pay a fixed percentage of their salary post-graduation for ten years.

The graduate would only pay their loan when they are working, so if they are not earning for the ten years then they pay nothing; if they only work for six of the years then they only pay during those six years.

The loans system is a “gamble on both sides,” according to MacCraith, “but it’s not driven by profit, it’s driven on investing in students”.

However, DCU’s President isn’t hopeful Minister Quinn will turn his attention to finding an alternative funding model for the third-level sector any time soon. “The political indications are the minister is not going to do anything in the lifetime of this government.”

Aoife Mullen

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