Representatives from seven of Ireland’s main political parties clashed over the future of higher education at a debate held in Trinity today, with significant attention given to the balance between a system funded by taxation or by student fees and the current Fine Gael government’s allocations to higher education, which Minister of State for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor said were larger than suggested by other parties but conceded that the sector still required “extra funding”.
The debate took place in Trinity’s Business School and was moderated by Shane Coleman, presenter of the Newstalk Breakfast show.
Provost Patrick Prendergast opened the debate, which he described as “important and timely”. The collaboration of the interest groups organising the event, he said, “underlined the deep shared concern about higher education and research in Ireland”.
“We are sitting on a time bomb,” Prendergast stated. “By we, I mean we the country. The country depends on cutting edge research.”
“Our universities are being overtaken in the global ranking by institutions around the world with better public funding,” he continued.
In their opening statements, Aengus Ó Maoláin of the Social Democrats criticised the current condition of higher education funding, saying that “continuing as we are now is a recipe for disaster”, while Sinn Féin’s Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire decried the notion of income-contingent loans, reiterating the idea that “the last four years have been time lost”.
Trinity Senator and Labour representative Ivana Bacik said that “higher education should be free from cradle to grave” and that insufficient higher education funding would lead to the destruction of the arts and humanities.
Neasa Hourigan of the Green Party branched away from funding to also discuss the importance of access and diversity in higher education, touching on transport, housing, and the experience of disabled students in education.
Fine Gael’s Minister of State for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor defended the government’s policies on higher education, referencing increases to higher education funding made in recent budgets.
People Before Profit representative Richard Boyd Barrett demanded that funding for higher education be prioritised, comparing the amounts spent by the government on students and horses, and called for higher education funding to be made by collecting taxes from multinational corporations.
The Cassells report quickly became a key point of contention in the debate, with left-wing party representatives criticising the government’s long-awaited decision on higher education funding. Mitchell O’Connor defended the ongoing wait, citing advisory bodies the report has been passed on to, but representatives of other parties insisted the government has “kicked it down the road”.
Deliberations on higher education funding in recent years have been led by the publication of the Cassells Report in 2016, which detailed three options for how higher education could be funded in Ireland. These included student loans, making higher education free at the point of access with state funding increasing from 64% to 80%, or an entirely state-funded system in which students would receive free education. Earlier this year, the government ruled out the introduction of loans, but a final decision on the future of higher education funding has not been made.
Coleman posed two yes-no questions to the panel: whether they believed there was an underfunding issue in higher education, and whether they would support the introduction of student loans. Representatives from the Social Democrats, People Before Profit, the Green Party, Sinn Fén and the Labour party gave a rapid-fire “yes” answer to the first question and “no” to the second.
Mitchell O’Connor, stating there should be “no loans ever for students”, was initially reluctant to give a short answer to the question of underfunding, but admitted when pushed by Coleman that the area requires more funding. Mitchell O’Connor and Fianna Fáil representative Thomas Byrne clashed on Fianna Fáil’s position on student loans, with Mitchell O’Connor suggesting that Byrne’s stance against them did not align with the party’s statements on student loans elsewhere.
Questioned on whether higher education funding should come from and how the politicians would balance taxation and student charges, PBP’s Boyd Barret demanded that there be “absolutely no financial obstacles” to accessing education and that tax breaks on multinational corporations needed to be reformed. Labour’s Bacik supported the first option in the Cassells report and promised to abolish the student registration fee, sparking debate around the Labour party’s record on student fees which saw fees rise under the 2011 Labour coalition government. Fianna Fáil’s Byrne said he wanted to set up a dedicated “higher education department”, while Sinn Féin’s Ó Laoghaire supported an entirely publicly funded higher education system.
Two questions were asked about spending on research from representatives from Trinity and the Royal Irish Academy, asking the politicians how they would balance funding for “pure or “blue-sky” research, with funding for “applied” research. Ivana Bacik and Aengus Ó Maoláin agreed that Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences are being left behind in the current model. Mary Mitchell O’Connor said that she wanted to see a “rebalancing” of funding for pure and applied research and an increase in the funding for pure research. Neasa Hourigan said that the Green Party “massively support blue-sky research”, while PBP’s Boyd Barret said there was a “need to break the marketisation of education and research”, which he said “forced researchers to “go to billionaire philanthropists and pharmaceuticals”, for funding, “who will want to dictate where the research goes”.
The future of higher education funding has been a key cause of concern for students in the last number of years, with protests attracting students from around the country in calls for a reduced student contribution charge and a solution to the high cost of student accommodation. In March 2019, Trinity students rallied in Front Square before marching to the Department of Education with chants of “no ifs, no buts, no education cuts”.
Budget 2019 brought a €74 million increase in investment for higher education, funded by a 0.1% increase to the National Training Fund. However, the additional funding fell short of the IUA’s pre-budget submission call for a €117 million increase to the direct grants and supports the government offers to third-level institutions.