Comment: 2021 must be the year to fix higher education funding

Solving the sector’s funding problem has the potential not only to contribute to our post-pandemic recovery but to underpin the next decade and more of growth

Simon Harris, the Minister for Further and Higher Education, stated to the Joint Oireachtas Committee recently that “2021 has to be the year” to settle the question of higher education funding. Photo:

“An té nach gcuireann san earrach, ní bhaineann sé”.

This old Irish proverb, meaning “whoever does not plant in the spring, does not reap in the autumn”, is one we should all take particular note of when contemplating a lasting solution for the funding of third-level education in Ireland.

The government-appointed Expert Group on Future Funding for Higher Education, led by Peter Cassells in 2016, recognised higher education as a key enabler of rebuilding capabilities to create more jobs, restore living standards, enhance social services and address societal challenges following the deep recession associated with the global financial crisis of 2008 to 2014.

The current programme for government has signalled a step-change in higher education and research in Ireland. Taoiseach Micheál Martin delivered on his promise to establish a separate department to spearhead the development of the sector. Simon Harris, the first Minister in the Department of Further and Higher Eduction, Research, Innovation and Science (DFHERIS), has set about his role with enthusiasm and vigour.

Higher education has, according to the programme for government, “a vital role in national recovery” by developing the skills and talent base of the economy and driving research and innovation. The higher education sector’s role in the post-pandemic era is as crucial as it ever was to mould and shape our economic, social, cultural and environmental future. It once again is a key enabler of recovery.

In order to realise our national and international ambitions, Ireland needs: firstly, graduates, as citizens, with the capacity to contribute to the discourse and debate which characterises a healthy society and the capability to meet the changing needs of our time; secondly, active research across a spectrum of disciplines to contribute to further social and economic development; and, thirdly, access for under-represented groups to realise their potential and that of our society.

Five years have passed since Cassells found that the higher education funding system was not fit for purpose, for higher-level institutions, nor for families and students. Not one interested party has disagreed with his analysis that the funding model is broken. Plenty of politicians and interested parties addressed the proposed solutions they were against, but too few identified the solution that they would support.

Much of the initial discourse with regard to Cassells placed an unfortunate emphasis on just one of the investment options identified: student fees and, potentially, student loans. This missed the real issues raised by Cassells: underinvestment in third-level education. The opportunity was missed then, but is still there, for a real revolution, investing in education for this generation just as had been done, with such impact for Ireland, a generation previously at second level.

A whole generation of students has passed through our universities impacted by the underinvestment in the sector, and Ireland is still awaiting a sustainable funding solution. The government sought and received support from the European Commission Structural Support Service to carry out the economic analysis which has been completed but not yet published. The pace of progress up to recently has been funereal.

Successive governments have resourced a range of important third-level initiatives across learning, research and innovation, capital and development projects. Welcome as this investment is, it does not address the fundamental need for a sustainable core funding model. The Covid-19 crisis has exposed these deficiencies in investment.

The establishment of the new DFHERIS, however, represents a welcome quantum leap in addressing the imperative of focusing on and delivering a sustainable funding model for universities and technological universities in Ireland.

At the Future of Ireland seminar run by the Irish Universities Association in October, Minister Harris spoke of the lodestar of the new department: investing in our people to unlock social and economic progress. He spoke of the strategies and structures required to bring about a transformation in Ireland’s response to evidence-informed skills forecasting and truly inclusive policy development. The universities are primed to input to and support the development and implementation of these strategies.

Harris stated to the Joint Oireachtas Committee recently that “2021 has to be the year” to settle the question of higher education funding. He bluntly told the committee that the underfunding of higher education had been “shirked” by successive governments and by the political system generally. He was unequivocal in his view that “core funding is too low”, and pledged to settle the funding question in 2021.

In looking forward, the Minister has taken a 360-degree perspective on how higher-level education in general, and universities in particular can innovate, develop, pivot and lead in transforming Ireland. Given the tectonic shifts of 2020 (Covid-19, Brexit, socio-economic changes, the international political landscape, the inflation of the demographic bubble), the timing for constructing a firm foundation for sustainable higher education funding, which gives every person the opportunity to realise their potential, has never been more compelling or urgent.

The extent of the economic impact of Covid-19 on the Irish economy remains to be seen. But it will be substantial – and for certain sectors devastating. The evidence suggests that it may be a K-shaped recovery where the well-off emerge even better off, the marginalised even more marginalised. Education above all else has a role and a responsibility in arresting these trends.

The Minister has stated that there are ever more urgent and mounting demands on the finite resources of the state. He has said that as well as urgent demands, there are strategically important requirements where investment will set Ireland on a sustainable course and will be seen to be decisive in our success as a people. The challenges posed by Covid, the potential of science, the possibilities of economic growth, the problems of inequality all have their solutions in investment in education and in research.

The danger is that a sustainable funding solution for higher-level education gets pushed back down the list of priorities. Harris recognises this danger and has called it out.

There will be many more calls on the public purse. Therefore, delivering on the commitment will take a huge push, not just by the Minister or his department but by the entire political community of all persuasions. The common denominator is that the political community as a whole represents the people in whom this investment must be made and sustained.

The demographic bubble means that thousands more students will be seeking to have third-level education, growing incrementally over the next ten years. The key role of access programmes will broaden and deepen the opportunities for a larger cohort of students.

We cannot wait until another generation of students pass through before delivering a solution. 2021 is the year.

Fixing the funding problem in higher education, as promised by Minister Harris, has the potential not only to contribute to the recovery, but to underpin the next decade and more of growth. Our talent, our skills and our capacity to innovate are the key natural assets of Ireland as a small open economy on the edge of Europe.

We cannot compete for inward investment and in export markets for our goods and services if we don’t have a talent and innovation base that measures up with the best in the world. Our advantages in taxation and location may not be sustainable: education is the last advantage standing. Settle the funding issue by putting in place a sustainable long-term model, and the universities and other colleges will deliver.

There is great wisdom in our proverbs: it behoves us all to “plant in the spring” for this generation of Irish talent. We can then look forward to both a springtime and a harvest for our students, our society and our economy.

Professor Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh is president of the Council of the Irish Universities Association and of NUI Galway