The announcement of Budget 2021 yesterday elicited a mixed response from groups representing students and workers at third level. Described by Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe as “an unprecedented budget”, Covid-19 was the primary focus of the government’s spending plans, leading to the largest budget in the history of the State. While a number of the measures designed to soften the impact of the pandemic on third level were welcomed, criticisms of the budget echoed those in recent years.
The majority of pre-budget proposals from unions and other third level groups stressed the importance of long-term funding for third level institutions and students. Joan Donegan, General secretary of the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT) said that funding would need to address the impact of Covid-19, but also the “previous decade of underfunding” which has led to an ongoing crisis at third level.
In their proposal, the Teachers Union of Ireland (TUI) emphasised the issue of student to staff ratios at third level. The ratio of students to teaching staff in Ireland is 20:1, compared to the European average of 14:1. The union called this “a clear indictment of the ongoing and completely unacceptable political failure – or refusal – to address the sector’s funding crisis”
In recent years there have been increasing calls to reduce the Student Contribution Charge of €3,000, currently the highest in Europe. The Union of Students in Ireland (USI), has lobbied for the removal of this charge, which it refers to as “a barrier to education for many”. In their Budget 2021 proposal, USI called for a €500 reduction in the charge to ease the impact that the pandemic has had on students. In September, Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris said that he believed the charge was “too high” and that it should be addressed in future.
Harris said that he would like to see the charge addressed in the budget, but this did not happen. The provisions for third level set out in Budget 2021 are largely focused on addressing the difficulties faced by students in light of Covid-19. The €3.3 billion allocation to the Department of Further and Higher Education includes €270 million for “school building projects” which will fund up to 20 higher education building projects. Also announced was a €50 million student hardship fund which will provide a single universal payment of €250 to every student. An additional €20 million was added to the budget for SUSI grants, and a full review of the SUSI programme was announced.
These measures were welcomed by third level stakeholders, but the response to the budget was largely critical, as many said it failed to address the funding crisis. TUI said that the government “fails to recognise the value of education”, and that staff and students would suffer as a result.
The response from USI was similar, they expressed disappointment at the lack of action on third level fees and said that the government has “ignored the systemic barriers that prevent students from accessing higher education.”
Many had hoped that the formation of the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research and Science would mean that the funding crisis would finally be addressed. Though the department has taken a number of encouraging steps since its formation, including a €168 million package for third level institutions, this budget has been criticised for once again failing to properly address the crisis.
This kind of criticism has been characteristic of budgetary responses in recent years. Last years’ budget was criticised by the Irish Universities Association (IUA) for focusing on “specific purposes” but failing to address “the growing gap in core funding”. In 2016, The Cassells Report recommended a dramatic increase in funding for third level institutions in order to address the crisis brought about by the 2008 financial crash. Since 2016, budgetary responses have repeatedly criticised governments’ failure to address the decisions set out by the report. While this year’s responses acknowledge the unique circumstances surrounding Budget 2021, criticisms of the government’s ongoing failure to address the underlying funding issues in higher education remain relevant.