We’re now into a sixth week of national lockdown, and it’s becoming harder and harder to close your eyes to the economic crisis we’re sprinting headlong into as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Most days bring ominous warnings from some expert or other about the scale of the dangers facing the economy, and the precipitous nature of the fall we’re likely to suffer.
Higher education’s stakeholders are clearly terrified – and it’s hard to blame them.
Before the virus hit, those in the control centre of third-level had become increasingly bellicose in their calls for state funding. Provost Patrick Prendergast even raised – provocatively, and very deliberately – the possibility of cutting the number of Irish students Trinity admits.
But even in so-called “peacetime”, before the election, aggressive entreaties didn’t succeed in putting higher education on politicians’ agendas. Every column inch was fought for, and a debate staged with the intention of forcing parties to discuss funding didn’t exactly yield fruitful results.
Now, with a global economic crash hurtling our way, we’re seeing the same tropes play themselves out again.
This week, Prendergast warned in the Irish Times that Trinity stands to lose up to €120 million in the next two years as a result of the pandemic, and called on the government to put its hand in its pocket to mitigate the loss of revenue.
It’s the same argument universities have been making since late last year. The difference now is that the stakes are higher, and the politicians are likely to be even less receptive.
Even if the next government doesn’t have its roots in Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil (a scenario that seems increasingly unlikely), it’s hard to see any situation where higher education funding is anywhere close to a government priority. Even without economic crisis, in Ireland, universities have often been down the list of priorities for investment, and closest to the block when it comes to cuts.
So while Prendergast’s warning was stark – and should petrify a country that still claims to pride itself on its knowledge economy – it feels worryingly like a provost shouting into the void.