In June, a new dawn broke for universities. They finally had a government department for themselves – a seat at the cabinet table – and a real chance of concrete reform for the sector.
And, on the whole, summer had been a hopeful time for the sector. Higher Education Minister Simon Harris had proven an energetic figure, indicating that he felt higher education needed to be rejigged – and that funding was a priority.
In July, he swiftly put his money where his mouth was, announcing a €168 million package for third-level institutions and students, to cover the costs incurred during the pandemic and to support students returning to college in September.
This was a major key change from a government that had in May said that there would be “no commitment or expectation of additional funding for the education sector at the present time”, in response to a submission from the IUA pleading for much-needed funding as the sector bled cash.
Soon after, in an interview with Claire Byrne on RTÉ Radio One at the end of August, Harris said that fees were currently “too high”.
“I’ve been minister for eight weeks and I would like to look at this over the lifetime of the government, obviously we have a budget in October.”
Harris even said that on the Cassells report – a taboo issue for Fine Gael ministers – he “would not be found wanting” – music to the ears of every university bigwig.
Today, however, was a reality check. Heading into Budget 2021, the third-level sector’s expectations were high – and understandably so.
In the face of ailing finances and a massive recession, the Irish Universities Association (IUA) had called for a €538 million injection into the higher education sector in its pre-budget submission.
The submission was ambitious, to say the least. For example, the IUA wanted to plough €160 million into creating green campuses across the country, and asked for another €102 million to curb the costs of the coronavirus.
The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) was equally ambitious, calling for a €500 reduction in the student contribution fee and a 10 per cent increase in the SUSI grant, as well as an increase in postgraduate stipends in line with the living wage or “at the very least” the national minimum wage.
No one in the sector had been calling for the government to hand out €250 to every student.
Yet, this is what they got, along with a few more goodies – an increase in the postgraduate SUSI grant, for example, and some cash to pay for the extra college places that have had to be created over the summer and will presumably continue to be introduced.
While higher education funding did increase from €1.74 billion to €1.93 billion, in reality the long-term aspirations that universities had dreamt would be fulfilled in Budget 2021 were largely ignored. There would be no end to the student contribution fee – or even a decrease in it – and no green campuses. The ongoing funding nightmare would continue indefinitely, with no decision made on the Cassells report and no sign of a long-term plan to handle the crisis.
The responses from USI and the IUA were fairly flat. In an interview with this newspaper soon after the budget announcement, USI President Lorna Fitzpatrick said that “the government has ignored the systemic barriers preventing students from accessing higher education, because those systemic barriers are not going to be addressed through a once-off funding package”.
“They need to be addressed through continuous financial support. The reduction in the student contribution charge that we had been calling for obviously wasn’t seen there and we’re disappointed about that, because it would have been a commitment from government to recognise the underlying problem, which is that students are paying the highest fees in the EU.”
Fitzpatrick was happy about the money going directly into students’ pockets and the changes to the SUSI grant were again welcome. But, on the whole, the budget announcements were in truth confusing.
When asked if she thought the government had listened to the sector, Fitzpatrick said: “In a way yes, in another way no.”
“They have recognised the financial pressures that people are in at the moment”, she said, “but I don’t think they have recognised the bigger financial pressures that people face as a result of the current costs associated”.
The IUA seemed – while less outspoken – equally confused. IUA Director General Jim Miley said on Twitter that he “warmly welcomed” the support for students.
“But, we need to tackle the funding deficit elephant in the room”, he added. “Time to fix HE and research funding model.”
In other words: thanks for the €250, but what about all the other requests we made?
Today was a peculiar day for higher education. Hopes have been dashed, and certainly some of the mysterious allure that had surrounded the Department of Higher Education has been wiped away. There were, however, some signs of improvement, but what is being offered to the sector is new, unexpected and – for the most part – unsolicited.
The big challenges that the sector has banged on about ad nauseum since the Cassells report have been ignored. Instead, the sector is getting short-term fixes.
Perhaps this could be the future of the department. For third-level’s major stakeholders, however, the more things change, the more they – kind of – stay the same.