The scene at this week’s conference on higher education funding was all too familiar. Rankings were rubbished and then un-rubbished. The economic value of the sector was agreed upon, then re-affirmed. In one corner you had Trinity’s Chief Financial Officer chatting to the incoming President of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) while in another, trade unionists muttered darkly over coffee and sandwiches.
If anything had changed in the preceding two years since Peter Cassells published his landmark funding report, it wasn’t immediately obvious. Still, that didn’t stop third-level staff and students from making the pilgrimage to Dublin to hear him speak. Yet if they came in search of answers, they were bound to be disappointed. Why? Because everyone already knows the answer to the higher education funding problem: politicians.
The Director General of the Irish Universities Association, Jim Miley, suggested during the talk that if Ireland can tackle an issue as controversial as abortion, higher education funding should be an easy fix. An imperfect comparison, perhaps, but the point stands: we’ve had marches, reports and wide-ranging debates for nearly a decade. All that’s left is for the political process to catch up.
Cassells, who authored the now-famous report that has become something of a disappointing talisman for the sector’s advocates, is certainly no tough taskmaster. While his report sets out three options for higher education funding, he’s never pretended that it’s a black and white choice. Whether it was his call for a “hybrid” model in 2016 or his plea this week for system tailored to Ireland that forgoes the mistakes of the US and UK, he can’t be blamed for not leaving the Department of Education scope for creativity. So it makes it all the more farcical that, two years later, he’s still begging for action.
Yet the saddest part about the much-hyped event is the veneer of credibility it gave to the idea that a “debate” is still needed. It goes without saying that former Minister for Education Ruairi Quinn, who opened the conference, probably heard similar arguments all those years ago as he grappled with the first ill-effects of the funding crisis – and equally failed to fully pay heed.
So what does this week’s conference – a packed room in an old Georgian office – tell us about the state of higher education today? That staff and students are still waiting, and still desperate.