The announcement made in Budget 2018 that employers would make an additional contribution to higher education funding was a welcome one. This is to be done through three annual increases of 0.1 per cent to the National Training Fund levy, bringing it from 0.7 per cent to 1 per cent.
This is in line with the recommendations of the Expert Group on the Future Funding of Higher Education, chaired by Peter Cassells. As a member of that group, I strongly argued that, as a major beneficiary of our higher education system, employers should contribute more to funding it.
However, what followed this announcement in the Budget speech was something that should worry all of us who care about the higher education sector in Ireland. It was suggested that the scheduled increases in Budget 2019 and 2020 would be contingent on “reforms” to the sector demanded by employers: “Employers have a central role in determining priorities for these sectors in 2018 and beyond. Therefore, the final two increases will be subject to the implementation of these necessary reforms.” What these reforms would entail remains unclear.
In the absence of clarity, this has set alarm bells off for many of us. What should have been a welcome development could in fact be deeply damaging for the sector.
In today’s globalised economy, the labour market is changing rapidly and, due to technological advancements, this pace of change continues to accelerate. Ten years ago, the front cover of Forbes magazine asked of Nokia: “One million customers. Can anyone catch the cellphone king?”
Today’s labour market needs cannot come at the expense of a holistic education, and we need well-balanced, flexible and responsive graduates, not a factory-style production line
We all know how that played out. When I graduated from my undergraduate degree in college in 2009, quantity surveying and construction management were among the most popular and sought-after courses amongst my friends and peers. Most of these graduated into a collapsed construction sector, which meant their fate was a return to college, emigration or the dole queue.
Nobody would argue that our education system needs to recognise labour market trends and to some degree take account of them. But these examples illustrate the folly in over-reliance on where today’s jobs are in our modern economy, when we need to be preparing graduates to face the challenges of tomorrow. Today’s labour market needs cannot come at the expense of a holistic education, and we need well-balanced, flexible and responsive graduates, not a factory-style production line.
It is not a criticism of employers to suggest that, when it comes to higher education, their focus is very heavily on the labour market. In fact, it is not only expected but necessary that any business owner’s first concern is their bottom line. Corporate executives must pay due attention to maximising shareholder value. But this is exactly why the people who should be shaping our higher education system are, undoubtedly, academics and students.
The reality is that this additional contribution from employers is long overdue, and the sector and state should not be held to ransom for employers to pay their fair share
The question is: what kind of influence to drive reforms does the Minister for Education, Richard Bruton, have in mind for employers? Is it influence over programmes, curriculums, modules or even content? Will greater specialisation be called for, when we know that broader entry routes help to combat poor retention rates? Will the graduate needs of businesses be put before the personal development of students, when college is formative and even transformative for so many young people?
The reality is that this additional contribution from employers is long overdue, and the sector and state should not be held to ransom for employers to pay their fair share. Employers in Ireland don’t just pay the second-lowest level of corporation tax in the EU at 12.5 per cent (recently surpassed by Hungary). What receives much less publicity and attention is that we have an extremely low rate of employers’ PRSI contribution. This low level of social insurance means that employees in Ireland have a very minimal “social wage”, which has a very negative impact on the in-work benefits and public services enjoyed by Irish workers.
The Coalition for Publicly Funded Higher Education is a coalition of six unions (IMPACT, SIPTU, USI, ISSU, TUI and IFUT) representing students and staff at both third level and second level, working together to campaign and advocate for significantly increased public investment in higher education. Like employers and their representatives, we are key stakeholders in our higher education system. Employers should be as consulted as we are, but not provided undue influence that undermines the integrity of academic freedom and disrupts industrial balance in the sector.
As chair of the coalition, I have written to Bruton and the Minister of State for Higher Education requesting a meeting to discuss these concerns. Yes, our primary goal is to see much-needed investment to address the funding crisis in higher education. But this cannot come at the expense of what makes higher education a fulfilling experience for students, one that prepares them not only for the world of work but for whatever life throws at them.