Developed in conjunction with

Institutes of Technology Ireland

Archived News

25th September 2015
RIA HE Funding event

RIA HE Funding event

A Dialogue on the Future Funding of Higher Education in Ireland

Remarks by Prof Ciarán Ó Catháin

President, AIT and Chair, IoTI

Royal Irish Academy, 23 September 2015


Good morning everybody.

Thank you for the invitation to participate in today’s event. I note the use of the term ‘dialogue’ in describing the proceedings, an approach I welcome and one which, I hope, will bring us closer to a solution. 

Many of the facts about the funding crisis in higher education are already in the public domain, so rather than repeat that material I plan to contextualize it, by focusing on three issues. The first is to give some sense of the practical difficulties I face as a leader of an institute of technology, the second is to look at the impact the stressed financial environment is having on our students and other stakeholders, while the third is to suggest some changes.

Let me begin, however, by recounting the story of a parliamentary question asked by a senior opposition spokesperson earlier this year about the funding of higher education. The deputy was given the information that on the current side, State investment in higher education has dropped by about 20% between 2010 and 2015. On the capital side, the situation is even starker where the drop over the same period is 50%. I doubt that this information will come as a surprise to people in this room. Of course, we all know that student numbers over the same period are higher – in the case of the institutes of technology, 16% higher. It is quite an achievement that in our much heralded knowledge economy, State investment per third level student is now below investment per second level student.

For me, however, the interesting thing is what happened as a result of that parliamentary question. After all, one assumes there was a rationale in asking it, or that there would have been a follow-through. Sadly, however, the question asked and the answer received made less impact within and without the Oireachtas than tales of savage seagulls. The wild birds, it seems, concern our parliamentarians far more than the fate of the 215,000 students currently in higher education. I should say that IoTI followed up with the deputy’s office, seeking a meeting to discuss the levels of increased productivity achieved during the crisis and the threat that faces higher education in Ireland. Six months on, there has been no response.

I think this story serves to illustrate that our politicians are very adept at paying lip service to the importance of higher education institutions and their roles in the knowledge industry and economy. However, like George Eliot, ‘I am not imposed upon by fine words; I can see what actions mean.’

In preparing for today’s dialogue, I re-read the OECD Review of Higher Education in Ireland which was published in 2004. Two particular recommendations stood out for me. One argues that as the cost to students rises, it is axiomatic that the government should maintain its level of investment. That hasn’t happened and I will return to that issue shortly. The second recommendation that caught my eye called for a drastic lightening in the load of external regulation so that institutions could be flexible in response to their constantly changing environments. As we approach the end of 2015, higher education institutions are, in my opinion, literally drowning in a sea of external regulation driven by seemingly endless, centralised, knee-jerk reactions to individual failings. In a context where student numbers have increased, the students are paying more and the State is paying less, our services to the students have disimproved, the overriding concern appears to be more circulars and more regulation! In this context, I wonder whatever happened to the much-heralded Regulatory Impact Assessment process that was supposed to precede regulations and was trumpeted so strongly by the Taoiseach’s department?

The OECD review is a good backdrop to speaking about my experience as a leader of an institute of technology. Here are some of the practical issues brought on by the funding crisis. At a fundamental level, the stranglehold on investment is leading to erosion of our capital stock, equipment and infrastructural base. Leaking roofs and windows are going unrepaired, paint peels from walls, computers grind slowly, struggling to run industry software. Were we another part of the education system, I would be tempted to suggest that we run bake sales or organise parish fêtes as means of solving these problems. However, this is a situation far beyond the capacity of some iced cupcakes to repair.

As ongoing investment in infrastructure is under threat, so too is our capacity to attract international students to these shores. I am minded of the words of a previous incumbent in Marlborough Street, who a few years ago chided the HEIs on representing themselves internationally as ‘world-class’. This was a claim, he said, ‘frequently trotted out in the past, but which blatantly wasn’t true’. It was ‘an assertion based on no evidence’. It was not apparent from the Minister’s remarks whether he understood the government’s central role in diminishing the capacity of the institutions to become and operate as world-class bodies.

Sadly, it is not so much a case of a Janus-faced government, being able to see everything at once, but more a sorry tale of an administration which knows not which way to look.

Applied research is a core activity performed in the institutes of technology. A central part of our mission is to be close to industry, to assist enterprise translate ideas into reality. We’ve been working with SMEs and multinationals for a half-century now, yet never before has our capacity to conduct this applied research – to help drive the economic engine of the country – been so threatened as is currently the case. As organisations built on human capital, our competitive advantage is being severely eroded through the Employment Control Framework and through other measures which severely impact upon the capacity of our academics to conduct applied research.

As part of nationally agreed productivity measures, lecturers in institutes of technology work an extra two hours teaching per week, the purpose being to cater for additional student numbers. Yet, with retiring and departing staff frequently not being replaced, this scarcely amounts to extra productivity, but rather a desperate sprint to stand still. We can see the impact this is having on morale within our workforce. Earlier this year, a report published by the TUI and IFUT revealed that almost three-quarters of academics believe that their working conditions have deteriorated. Faculty are under pressure to teach more students and to work longer hours. There is not enough time to devote to their research, while the administrative burden continues to grow.

There is an irony that simultaneous with this diminution of working conditions in third level, there is increasing attention in the media on the investments made by multinational employers to recruit and retain the best staff. Should the gap between HEIs and private industry grow further in terms of working conditions, I worry greatly about the capacity of the institutes of technology, in particular, to recruit staff with industry experience.

The ECF numbers have also led to a diminution of essential support services at the very time when student numbers are expanding. The success of the access agenda in broadening the pool of people progressing to third level is certainly to be welcomed, however, the support services necessary to enable these students to continue and successfully complete their higher education programmes are simply not in place.

Sadly, as is often the case, the cuts in funding will most impact those who are least equipped to deal with the fallout. I am talking specifically here of students who attend student counselling services at third level. Over 10,000 students attended campus-based counselling services in the academic year 2013/2014, in effect, the largest psychologically based primary mental health care facility for young people in the country. While the numbers of students attending such services has doubled since 2008, the ratio of staff to students has deteriorated from 1:3800 to 1:5000.

According to the Irish Association of University and College Counsellors, the number of complex and severe mental health issues, such as psychosis, severe depression and personality disorders presenting on campus continues to increase year on year. Young people carry the burden of mental ill health. International evidence has shown that three-quarters of psychological disorders emerge before the age of 25, while mental disorders are now the leading cause of disability among young people aged 10-24 years around the world.

Sadly, I’m all too familiar with the plight of students in Athlone who find themselves in crisis situations, too often with catastrophic consequences. In AIT, as elsewhere, our approach is to help these students through close cooperation between the counselling service, student services, chaplaincy, medical and disability services, the international office, as well as faculty. Such a multi-faceted approach not only highlights the complexity of the issues involved, but also the extent of resources required to adequately help these students in need.

At a national level, the ‘My World Survey’ conducted by the School of Psychology at UCD mapped the emotional contours of the higher education landscape in 2011. Of the more than 8,000 third level students surveyed, 40% had clinical levels of depression, 38% had clinical levels of anxiety, while 43% had at some point thought their life was not worth living.

These issues cannot be viewed in isolation from the reduction in provision of guidance counselling at second level. The government’s own Well-being in Post-Primary Schools report notes that the guidance counsellor’s ‘specialist role’ ‘greatly helps in the identification of a young person with mental health problems, so that necessary supports can be activated’. There is a very cruel irony, that such individuals having proven resilient enough to succeed in the Leaving Certificate and make it through to third level are then, further abandoned. Despite the best intentions of those working at the coalface, many of these students will leave higher education without completing their programme of study. It would be a gross simplification, however, to view this as personal or individual failure. This is a systemic failure.

At a time when we are trumpeting initiatives such as Healthy Ireland, this is not only an example of gross hypocrisy, but a shocking example of political double-speak and neglect of our most vulnerable populations. We have to invest in appropriate support and retention services so that these students have the opportunity to emerge as skilled graduates. Money spent in this way should be seen as an investment, which will return a significant whole-of-life benefit to the State.

In addition to the human cost, the current funding crisis in higher education also threatens our future economic growth. While there are many and varied benefits to the student from a tertiary education, one of the most significant is the knowledge and skill set which act as a passport in the world of work. Equally, employers look to us as providers of knowledgeable and highly trained graduates.

Not too long ago, I listened to a discussion on national radio about the needs of employers for work-ready graduates. A distinction was made between the SME sector and the multinationals. The former, it was stated, particularly required staff who could hit the ground running, who knew how to do the job. This is the space specifically occupied by the institutes of technology, where the benefits of an applied education come to the fore. Yet, the very inputs necessary to deliver such an education, and in particular, the resources required to fund extensive placement programmes, are being whittled away by the current funding regime.

So, where to from here? I think it’s fair to say that there are three main beneficiaries of higher education; namely, the State, the student and, I think, industry. The State has reduced its level of support since the onset of the financial crisis and has asked the students to pay more. I think that, in an improving economy, the State should and must give more financial support to higher education. Student fees – and that’s what they are – at €3,000 per annum are quite expensive, especially for people from lower socio-economic groups and I am sure that will feature in the work of the Expert Funding Group under Peter Cassells. Today, I would like to challenge industry to contribute specifically to the funding needs of higher education. This could be done through adding to the existing training levy by specifically ear-marking such contributions for higher education. This would not only help third level, but it would help to offset some of the criticism of the low corporation tax rate. 

The situation we have today where the State is lowering its percentage funding of higher education requires a new relationship with the sector. It is simply not sustainable to be treating higher education institutions like they were schools and should be run by Department circular. In funding and operational terms, HEIs are now closer to commercial State bodies and this needs to be reflected in their dealings with the government.

Before concluding, I want to mention an issue that might not be well known to everybody here. In legislation, the universities and the institutes of technology have the same borrowing powers. However, there is no comparison between what this means for the two sectors in reality. In order for the IoTs to borrow money – which they can do in law, but not in a bank – they require the HEA to activate the powers. This could be done simply by putting in place an enabling framework. Such a framework is available to the universities but, for the last eight years, the HEA has declined to put a framework in place for the institutes of technology. Is that lawful conduct? I am pretty certain it isn’t, and that says a lot about public administration in Ireland. Here I am very envious of our university colleagues who are now able to access very low interest EIB funding for capital projects which is denied to the institutes.

In order to survive and thrive in this modern world, to meet the needs of our many and diverse students, to provide an enriching and supportive environment for our staff, and to act as partners to enterprise, we need a new funding model for higher education. Without it, we will continue to be hamstrung, settling for what is satisfactory rather than optimal; world-class in our oratory, less so in reality.

In the latest HEA annual report, chairman John Hennessy recounts a letter he wrote to the minister in November 2014 outlining the panoply of problems besetting third level. He concludes by saying ‘All of these matters have worsened since then’. Let not another year of deterioration pass, to allow it would be gross negligence indeed. To put the challenge another way, it is long past time to find out who cares about higher education.


 Thank you.