Just two weeks before the Irish general election, higher education interest groups have put out a united call for greater funding for the sector. The Irish Universities Association (IUA), the Technological Higher Education Association (THEA), and the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) have rallied to campaign for a pre-election commitment to hundreds of millions of euros of higher education funding.
Government funding per student in higher education is 40% lower than in 2010 and has been called a “national crisis” by Hugh Brady, former head of UCD. At current rates of investment this will only worsen, with student populations likely to rise by as much as 36,000 in the next decade.
The representative bodies are meeting with all major parties to speak with their education representatives and discuss the needs of the third level sector. They have begun a social media campaign to encourage voters to ask their politicians for immediate action as well.
The groups have proposed a two-part model for how to address the lack of funds until a more comprehensive plan has been formalised. Firstly they want an increase to core exchequer funding for third-level by at least €100 million per year over the next 3 years. They then request an additional €200 million be allocated from the National Training Fund (NTF). The NTF is financed by employer revenues, and will soon obtain a value of over €1 billion. This figure could grow to as much as €1.5 billion by 2022.
Dr. Joseph Ryan, Chief Executive of the Technological Higher Education Association (THEA) remarked that “The NTF was established with the singular purpose of supporting our national higher education and skills training requirements” which he asserts makes it an ideal source of funding for third level education. For Ryan, “It is unimaginable that such a Fund surplus would be allowed to sit in a government bank account while the crisis in third level funding continues apace…As we face into a General Election, we are calling on all parties who hope to be part of the next Government to commit to this sustained investment in higher education”.
The Cassells Report released in 2016 recommended an additional €600 million in funding a year by 2021 but as of yet no action has been taken.
Jim Miley, Director General of Irish Universities Association, criticised the lack of action: “After almost four years, the options identified by Cassells have been referred to an EU-funded study group for further analysis and recommendations. Realistically, we will have to wait until late 2020 to get a ‘Report about a Report’. It will take a further year or more for the political and civil service system to act. We just cannot wait that long. In an increasingly competitive global environment, Ireland’s talent is our future.”
Addressing political candidates and voters across the country, the President of USI Lorna Fitzpatrick wants to emphasise that “collectively, the staff and student community at third level is close to 300,000 people, perhaps double or treble that when their immediate families are taken into account. We say to our politicians and election candidates – these are people living and supporting your local communities. And we say to those people themselves – ask your election candidate to commit to addressing the crisis in third level funding when they ask for your support. It is nothing less than your future and that of your family that is at stake.”