The Covid-19 crisis has already begun to take effect on the Irish economy. Retail and hospitality sectors have seen closures and layoffs since the beginning of the pandemic, and families have struggled, with over 1.26 million people having to rely on government assistance for all or part of their income. Universities and schools have already had to adapt to remote learning and assessment, but they will soon face serious financial difficulty as a result of this crisis. This will only deepen the current crisis in third level funding, which has seen universities struggling since the 2008 financial crash.
As the Irish economy faces a recession following the pandemic, it is likely that the government will cut spending in a number of sectors. This may include higher education, which has seen an increase in funding in recent years. Any negative financial effects of the pandemic will only deepen the crisis in third level funding in Ireland, which has seen university funding cut by almost 40% in the past decade. This comes as student numbers are predicted to rise by 40,000 over the next decade. In 2008, university funding in Ireland amounted to almost €9,000 per student. By 2019, it had fallen to €5,000 per student. In response to this crisis in funding, the Cassells report recommended that an additional €600 million be allocated to third level funding annually, rising to €1 billion by 2030. As of yet, the government has not taken action in response to this report and universities have dealt with cuts to funding by cutting costs and raising student registration fees. Without significant government assistance in the coming years, it is likely that these measures will be taken further.
The funding crisis was named by Trinity as the principal factor in its falling in international university rankings over the past ten years, and while the recent rise to 101st in the QS world university rankings shows signs of a recovery, the financial fallout of the pandemic is likely to slow the progress that College is making.
The financial consequences of Covid-19 for Irish universities cannot simply be measured by drawing parallels to the 2008 crash. The pandemic itself will bring a number of factors into play. Throughout the current funding crisis, Irish universities, and Trinity in particular, have seen rising numbers of international students. These students have been heavily relied on by universities for funding, and Trinity even considered lowering the number of Irish student places in the college in order to lower the ratio of students to staff, without affecting the number of international students. In April, it was announced that Trinity was to spend €200,000 to set up a recruitment office in China. International students have become a key source of funding for College, but Irish universities may be unable to lean on them following the coronavirus pandemic. It is expected that the number of international students will fall by 80% in the next academic year, which will only increase financial hardship. The Irish Universities Association (IUA) has said that lower numbers of international students will result in a loss of €181 million in fee income for Irish universities, as well as a loss of €34 million in income from accomodation.
The programme for government set out by Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, and the Green Party this week details a number of measures to be taken in the interests of universities and third level students. These include a review of Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI) eligibility and adjacency rates, as well as a review of the scheme in light of the impact of Covid-19. The programme also mentions plans to build student accommodation using cost rental models in order to lower student rent rates, as well as plans to “develop a long term sustainable funding model for higher education”.
These commitments were welcomed by the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), who said that they would continue to campaign and lobby “to ensure that the promises that are in line with our policy become a reality”. USI expressed disappointment at the lack of any plan to lower student fees in the lifetime of this government, with the programme only promising that fees would be maintained at current levels.
Technological University Dublin’s (TUD) annual cost of living survey has estimated that a drop off in social activities will reduce student’s cost of living for the next year, but warned that the coming year will be difficult for many families.
A number of plans have been made with the financial security of universities and students in mind. USI has called for the €350 Covid-19 Pandemic Unemployment Payment to be extended for students who may have been working longer hours over the summer months. They will also lobby the government to suspend student rent payments for the duration of the pandemic, and to expand eligibility for receipt of the SUSI grant. Trinity has frozen recruitment as a means to ease the financial fallout of the pandemic, and an emergency group was established in May to manage various financial risks.