The recent revelation that universities can expect no help from the state in dealing with the enormous financial damage caused by the coronavirus crisis throws into sharp relief the fact that higher education remains an afterthought for this government.
There will be grants and loans and bailouts of one kind or another for private businesses, as there should be, but no recognition, it seems, of the value of higher education to our economy and our society or of the precarious position that it has been put in by the policies of successive governments.
The introduction of free fees for third-level education in 1995 signalled a commitment to higher education as a public good. This is founded on the idea that everyone should have the opportunity to get a third-level education, regardless of means, and that everyone benefits from a highly educated populace, not just those with the college degrees. This move presented an opportunity and also created a responsibility for the state to invest in higher education.
But successive governments have reneged on that promise to the Irish people. Instead, they have cumulatively reduced the funding that colleges receive per student, from €9,000 per student a decade ago to now only €5,000 per student. It hasn’t somehow gotten cheaper to actually provide that education. To make up the shortfall, universities have been forced to look for revenues elsewhere, with now under 40 per cent of Trinity’s budget coming from the exchequer.
The cost of educating our own citizens is being subsidised by fees from non-EU students, by visitors to the Book of Kells, by concert-goers and conference attendees, and by the generosity of benefactors
The cost of educating our own citizens is instead being subsidised by fees from non-EU students, by visitors to the Book of Kells, by concert-goers and conference attendees, and by the generosity of benefactors. This is a shocking abdication of responsibility by the state.
Those revenues don’t fill the College coffers. They don’t enrich shareholders because we don’t have any. They go to paying the salaries of lecturers and technicians and administrative staff and cleaners and security and groundskeepers. They are keeping the libraries open and the teaching labs running. Government policies and budget decisions have forced universities to act like businesses, not to make a profit, but just to make good on the state’s own promise. Covering these costs has also required cutbacks in our staff and facilities, with a resultant slide in our international rankings.
The current crisis has cruelly exposed the vulnerability of this arrangement. With non-EU student numbers due to plummet and commercial revenues from tourism or events evaporating, the predicted shortfall for universities is enormous. And the state’s response to higher education institutes and their students has so far been: “You’re on your own.”
Even looking past this crisis, everyone knows this model of funding is unsustainable with current levels of investment. This has been repeatedly and compellingly highlighted, most recently by the Cassells report in 2016. But without a champion at the cabinet table, higher education has not been prioritised or even protected.
Cutting funding has been an easy option – indeed it has been used as a tool of control. Any special funds that do become available tend to be tied to a commercial agenda, with universities and other third-level institutions told their job is not to educate in a broad sense, but to “meet the needs of employers”.
Government policies and budget decisions have forced universities to act like businesses, not to make a profit, but just to make good on the state’s own promise
The same attitude has been applied to research, especially in the funding priorities of the largest granting agency, Science Foundation Ireland (SFI). There has been a strong emphasis on funding applied research that can demonstrate the possibility of some short-term commercial impact. Specific areas of research related to perceived industrial strengths were prioritised for investment, to the virtual exclusion of all others, with resources progressively concentrated in a small number of research centres with close ties to industry.
Because SFI has fallen under the Department of Business, Enterprise and Innovation, the value of research investment has been couched in short-term commercial terms. Science has been seen purely through an economic lens, with no recognition of the wider and longer-term benefits of an active and diverse research ecosystem.
All of that applied work is laudable and important, but it represents only a small part of the spectrum of scientific research and it cannot thrive in isolation. Without a pipeline of discoveries from more fundamental research, there will be nothing to apply. Without a broad system of active research labs, each pursuing their own interests, there will be no pool of talented students getting trained, no teaching assistants for undergraduate courses, no development of new areas of expertise, and no emergence of unexpected knowledge, the usefulness of which may not yet be apparent.
In 2015, over 1,000 Irish scientists, working here and abroad, wrote an open letter to the government asking them to reconsider these policies. That plea was ignored. In 2020, they have again written to the government as the situation has only gotten worse after another five years of neglect and lack of investment.
Any special funds that do become available tend to be tied to a commercial agenda, with universities told their job is to “meet the needs of employers”
The coronavirus has shown us how much we need a diversity of expertise in our institutes of higher education. Not just in obvious areas like virology and immunology and nursing and medicine and public health, but also in economics and sociology, in the mathematics of complex systems, in data science, in computer science and engineering, in ethics and law and history.
This is not just a health crisis – it is a crisis that shines a harsh light on all our social systems, on the things we’ve chosen to value and the things we’ve taken for granted.
And looming behind the virus are the much bigger existential risks of climate change and the resurgence of fascism – challenges that will require all our ingenuity to solve. This moment again presents both an opportunity and a responsibility. Our institutes of higher education and research stand ready to be a key part of the solution to these challenges. But they require real sustained support from the state.
Putting in place a new Department of Higher Education and Research with a cabinet minister would signal a welcome recognition of the crucial role of these areas in our economy and our society.