The government has allocated an extra €57 million to higher education in today’s Budget 2019, amid persistent indecision over the future funding model of the sector.
An extra €150 million total will go towards research, higher and further education, with €57 million going towards higher education. The funding increases to the sector fall short of the €600 million per year outlined in the Cassells report as a necessary investment for universities’ survival.
Speaking in the Dáil today, Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe spoke about the “long-term” focus on “investing in education that has allowed Ireland to attract world-leading businesses across many sectors”.
Donohoe also restated the previously announced plan to introduce a 0.1 per cent increase in the National Training Fund, with a promised additional 0.1 per cent increase to the fund in 2020, bringing it to one per cent by 2021.
Budget 2018 saw the allocation of €310 million by 2021 to address the infrastructure needs of the sector. Universities have long struggled to keep infrastructure in good condition, with financial burdens preventing them from investing or causing huge deficits. This funding announcement marks a significant investment just a year after the first such investment in higher education since the economic crash in 2008.
Speaking to The University Times, President of the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), Síona Cahill, said she was “extremely disappointed” in the Budget.
“From our perspective, Paschal Donohoe has clearly decided who the preferred electorate is in the coming general election”, she said. “And all I have to say to that is we’ll see them at the ballot box, because this budget does little to nothing for students.”
Housing was emphasised in today’s Budget, after months of escalating protests and widespread public criticism of the lack of affordable housing in Ireland. Donohoe today allocated a further €2.3 billion to housing for next year, noting that when it comes to the housing crisis, the government is “not where we want to be”. “There is much work to be done to reduce homelessness and find permanent solutions for those in emergency accommodation”, he said.
Speaking to The University Times after the Budget, the President of Trinity College Dublin Students’ Union (TCDSU), Shane De Rís, said that this Budget “doesn’t go far enough to address the crisis in the funding crisis”.
“It’s tragic that each and every day students are being priced out of education”, he said.
In a press statement, the Director General of the Irish Universities Association (IUA), Jim Miley, said: “It is a serious cause of concern that the government has not prioritised the education of the future workforce of the country. Third level funding is critical to generating the talent pool for the economy. Our future economic competitiveness will be eroded if the public funding deficit is not addressed.
“It’s patent nonsense for the Minister to continue to talk about having the ‘best education system in Europe by 2026’ while presiding over a funding regime that only provides a fraction of the funding per student of those best countries in Europe”, Miley said.
In a press statement, Joan Donegan, the General Secretary of the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT), said: “The specific amount for universities within the broad allocation of €150m for ‘higher education, further education, training and research’ needs to be clarified. It would appear to fall far short, yet again, of the resources highlighted as necessary in the specially commissioned 2016 Cassells Report.”
“In addition, the 0.1% increase in the National Training Fund Levy, first announced last year, will further undermine academic freedom and flexibility at university level, particularly in the context of severely restricted state funding. This risks further impacting on academic standards and ratings”, she added.
In its pre-Budget submission, USI called for €1.26 billion to be invested in higher education before 2030. This included a demand for immediate investment in student accommodation, an additional €14.9 million to be spent on grants and a reduction of the Student Contribution Charge.
This morning, students’ union leaders gathered outside Leinster House to condemn the rainy day fund that was included in Budget 2019. USI wasn’t the only lobby group to criticise the move. Miley, has been a vocal opponent of the move, saying in a press statement in September: “The government has repeatedly stated that it wants to have ‘the best education system in Europe’. That cannot be delivered without a significant increase in investment in higher education.”
Ibec, the employers’ lobbying group also came out against the rainy day fund, stating in its pre-Budget submission that it “should be directed towards an increased €250 million investment in higher education in 2019”.
Donohoe said that he had established the fund “to increase the state’s resilience to larger economic shocks”.
USI, the IUA, the Technological Higher Education Association (THEA), Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT) and the Teachers Union of Ireland (TUI) this year joined forces to release an unprecedented joint pre-Budget statement, calling for a dramatic increase in funding for the sector.
In a press statement, Cahill said: “There’s been a 2% increase in the number of students attending third level year on year, at the same time there has been a managed decline in state investment. What was a response to a recession is not at all acceptable as a way forward for a higher education system which we need to support student success, promote access, and produce top quality graduates.”
Miley said: “The government has repeatedly stated that it wants to have ‘the best education system in Europe’. That cannot be delivered without a significant increase in investment in higher education. If the investment is not made, the future talent pipeline for the workforce will be jeopardised and the country’s competitive edge will be at serious risk.”
The IUA’s stance on higher education funding has changed in recent times, with IUA head Miley emphasising an increase in core funding – diverging from the organisation’s previous stance proposing an income-contingent loan scheme to fund the sector. In September, in an interview with The University Times, Miley said the IUA would no longer lobby the government to introduce a student loan scheme, saying universities are increasingly becoming “agnostic on loans”.
Miley said that “loans were never going to solve the problem”. Instead, he said, the argument for loans “was something that allowed the government to get off the hook for the last couple of years”.
This year, USI cancelled its annual pre-Budget March for Education, in favour of organising a march on the day of the national Raise the Roof rally organised by trade unions. Around 3,000 students descended on the Garden of Remembrance, before marching across the city to meet the national rally on Molesworth St.
The higher education sector has made repeated calls for increased funding. Over 50 per cent of Trinity’s funding now comes from non-exchequer sources, with Provost Patrick Prendergast having indicated that College is increasingly reliant on commercialisation ventures to support Trinity financially.
For nearly two years, the Oireachtas Education and Skills Committee has been discussing the options set out in the Cassells report: the abolition of the student contribution and the creation of a predominantly state-funded system, the continuation of the current student contribution charge coupled with increased state investment, and the introduction of an income-contingent loan system.
Last October, Higher Education Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor said she was hoping for the much-anticipated report from the Oireachtas Committee for Education and Skills: “I’m hoping for it. I know that they’ve had it for the last year. I’m hoping for it before Christmas, but I’m still waiting on it.”
The committee, which is chaired by Fianna Fáil TD Fiona O’Loughlin, is currently considering the three options set out by the government’s higher education funding working group in the Cassells report.
Both Minister for Education Richard Bruton and Minister for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor have repeatedly emphasised the need for “consensus” behind any decision on a new funding model, just as Fianna Fáil has distanced itself from income-contingent loan schemes and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has said he would not want to see UK or US-style loan schemes introduced.