The Higher Education Authority (HEA) recently went to the Department of Education with a cap in one hand and a fistful of harrowing figures in the other.
A €508 million drop in revenue for the higher education sector in 2020 and 2021. A €44 million drop in research funding and another €34 million in student accommodation revenue. Another €15 million lost due to the effect of the coronavirus on commercial activities such as attractions and conferences: the Book of Kells springs to mind.
Unforeseen consequences and the rejigging of curriculums may cost a further €116 million.
The HEA’s submission to the Department for financial assistance was full of these figures. The pandemic will have an “immense financial consequences”, it warned.
But Irish universities will not be receiving the financial support they are calling for and will have to fend for themselves, according to the Irish Independent. The department’s reaction was the equivalent of a governmental shrug: by telling universities to work out their financial issues from within their own budgets, it essentially said: “That sounds like a ‘you’ problem.”
This is unsurprising – in recent years it’s been abundantly clear that higher education is low on the list of priorities of the government and the public. But a worsening higher education funding crisis is not a “you” problem: the future of Ireland’s economy – and the future of a potential vaccine to the virus – lies, to a large extent, at the feet of universities.
Universities will train Ireland’s workforce as we move into a brutal recession. University researchers will be at the heart of a vaccine or the new medicines to help the afflicted survive the coronavirus. Ireland needs cutting-edge innovation and a well-trained workforce to prop up the knowledge economy now more than ever.
Universities were severely cash strapped before the pandemic, and it is hard to see how the sector will survive the next few years without significantly declining. This would be damaging to universities and to society as a whole.
The government’s response has not been good enough, and higher education’s bigwigs need to do something about it. They have compelling arguments for financial deliverance – they need to use them.