It was around this time three years ago that the Cassells report – a groundbreaking review of potential higher education funding strategies – was officially released.
Three years later, and still the government has failed to act.
There’s been talk. Committees have convened. Options have been discussed. But the government has consistently failed to deliver on the report’s most crucial recommendation: action.
When the report was first released,the three options for funding it outlined – 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 – seemed like the radical shock a failing education system needed to get back on its feet.
By this time, universities will have waited four years for even the beginnings of a decision on how the funding crisis will be resolved
All of this, however, was contingent on one of the options actually being pursued, and higher education funding actually increasing as a consequence.
The report was not an academic exercise, considering higher education funding in the abstract. Peter Cassells, the report’s lead author, has repeatedly been vocal about its urgency, and unequivocal on the need for immediate solutions. The report was a call to action, not a can to be kicked down the road.
It’s this history that renders almost comically frustrating yesterday’s news that the report – which was sent to the EU for economic advice in January – will not return until at least April 2020. By this time, universities will have waited four years for even the beginnings of a decision on how the funding crisis will be resolved. Who knows how long they’ll have to wait before that decision is made, or put into practice.
There comes a point after which the government’s actions start to look less like fact-finding, and more like filibustering
No-one is denying that detailed advice is required – indeed, the spectacle of university heads u-turning on the idea of student loans being the best form of funding shows that everyone involved with higher education has long grappled with the issue. But there comes a point after which the government’s actions start to look less like fact-finding, and more like filibustering. For higher education, that time came and went a long time ago.
As students take to the streets to demand better third-level funding, and studies continue to show the irrefutable value a strong education system can bring to the country, it’s tempting to see the lacklustre government response as more than mere incompetence. With staff-to-student ratios plummeting, and Irish universities falling en masse in global rankings, government inaction begins to feel malicious, even callous.
This isn’t just shouting about arcane government policy. When the government gambles with higher education funding, it is gambling with people’s futures. Universities around Ireland face deep-set issues around accessibility, competitiveness, day-to-day management – problems that will only get worse as the funding crisis intensifies. And crucially, these are problems that can only be solved if the government puts its full weight behind the higher education sector.