This week saw the unveiling of ambitious new plans by NUI Galway (NUIG) to majorly revamp its campus in the coming years. Among the promises of NUIG’s latest strategic plan are another library, a new sports campus and the development of an innovation district – estimated to cost a hefty €200 million.
These proposals may seem grand. But, coming on the heels of the University of Limerick’s (UL) plan to amp up student numbers by 50 per cent and enlarge its existing campus, and University College Dublin’s (UCD) intention to grow its student numbers to 32,000 within the decade, NUIG’s proposals become slightly less eye-catching.
The plans have more in common than their expansive promises. NUIG’s plan to create an innovation district on Nuns’ Island has echoes of Trinity’s development of a Technology and Enterprise Campus in Grand Canal Dock, while UL is also clear it wants to help rejuvenate the wider mid-western area. You can’t accuse any of lacking aspiration.
But we’ve now had three colleges laying out startlingly ambitious strategies in recent months, and it’s becoming harder and harder not to wonder: how is higher education, a sector famously up to its eyes in a long-term funding crisis, suddenly making such weighty – and expensive – plans for its future?
The answer likely has a lot to do with a deliberate and understandable move by universities to increase the non-state funding they’re bringing in. Led by Trinity, colleges have embraced commercialisation and philanthropy to a level never seen before.
They’ve done so successfully, with Trinity’s Inspiring Generations project capturing headlines and UCD earning praise for recording a €35.2 million surplus in spite of a lack of government investment.
But the figures being talked about – often going towards massive capital projects – seem to be predicated on the assumption that the commercial model will continue to provide for universities’ ever-growing needs. It’s not an approach that’s without risk.
It’s surely more than a little strange that while university presidents are lamenting – justifiably – a lack of state funding, they’re also committing to spending hundreds of millions on massive capital projects. Let’s hope the plans don’t collapse on themselves.