Threats to the autonomy of third-level institutions are amongst the biggest concerns of Provost Patrick Prendergast and his peers on the Irish Universities Association (IUA), so much so that it is one of the main reasons why they are so fervently arguing for the introduction of an income-contingent loan scheme above any other model.
The crude version of the theory goes that, by shifting the burden of paying for higher education from the state to students, the government will be less concerned about how institutions spend the money. They will be left to their own devices, and no longer will they be constrained by employment control frameworks, which limit how much academics can be paid, or “pesky” rules that limit how many can be employed on temporary contracts.
Prendergast has gone so far as to say that, if decreasing state funding “is going to be the new normal”, then “it should be accompanied by deregulation”.
News this week, then, that the Minister for Education, Richard Bruton, is set to introduce powers to appoint independent investigators who can examine “issues of concern” in third-level institutions should cause them some alarm. The previous week, it emerged that colleges are set to face significant financial penalties for a whole range of issues, like unauthorised payments to staff, the late filing of accounts or simply giving “misleading” reports on governance issues.
While these moves could really be seen as a proportionate response to egregious financial mismanagement in several third-level institutions, it should probably also be taken as a sign that the sector is not going to see deregulation anytime soon.
As such, we can now start to imagine a scenario in which the introduction of income-contingent loan schemes would coincide with an increase in government oversight, rather than the opposite.
Given Prendergast and his peers on the IUA do not claim to be ideologically opposed to the funding model this board has consistently argued for in the past – completely state-funded, free education – such a scenario would make their impassioned arguments for loan schemes seem little more than foolhardy.