On the day of the budget, student politicians and third-level officials were geared up to 11. The Provost had made bold statements about reducing student numbers in the face of insufficient funding on the Sean O’Rourke show earlier in the week. The interview had been a scading attack on the government’s inaction on third-level funding.
Two days later, Hugh Brady, the former president of University College Dublin, lambasted the government for neglecting higher education since the 2008 recession, calling it “unconscionable that Ireland has fallen so far”.
In his speech, Minister for Finance Paschal Donohoe spoke at length about Brexit, the environment and all the miracles Fine Gael has conjured up over the years. And then, as his speech came to a close, he came on to higher education. Donohoe announced a €74 million increase to the National Training Fund and €60 million increase to the new Human Capital Initiative, all of which will go – in a roundabout way – back to college and universities.
A few lines about the importance of investment, and then he quickly moved on. That was it. No massive cut to higher education and no massive increase.
Actually, it was quite difficult to figure out what exactly had happened. Even the most pessimistic among us expected a more substantial discussion of the higher education crisis. No-one thought that the government would do anything about the crisis, but an expression of some concern about the horrendous state of third-level education would have been appropriate.
Minister for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor took to Twitter trying to rescue the situation, pointing out that this was the biggest investment in higher education in the history of the state. But, no one was under any illusions: this budget proved that the government is indifferent about the plight of students and third-level institutions.
But even in the week since the budget announcement there has been little outrage about the lack of funding committed to higher education. The lack of concern demonstrated by the government seems to have stunned colleges into silence.
In the end, all the talk from the Provost and Brady was nothing more than sound and fury.