The European Commission has released a Reform Plan for Third Level Education. The plan aims to boost employment opportunities and economic growth in Europe’s worsening debt crisis, treatment by the year 2020.
These shared education objectives on the “modernisation” of Europe’s Higher Education system aim to allow European institutions to compete with other world class universities, at a time when only 200 of Europe’s 4000 Higher Education institutions are recognized in the latest World University rankings.
The headline target stipulates that by 2020, “40% of young people should successfully complete higher education or equivalent studies,” an ambitious increase from the recorded 33.6% in 2010. Other targets include the outreach to a broader cross section of society including vulnerable and disadvantaged groups, a reduction in school dropout rates, research intensive economies and national qualification frameworks.
The EU has pledged its support to this strategy with the significant increase in budget devoted in education research and innovation. This, along with the EU target demanding the creation of effective funding mechanisms, as well as financial support and increased access, raises the issue of Irish Third Level fees.
Though the EU’s reform plan shows no commitment to the future of Irish fees, it does stipulate that there should be an increase in the quantity of higher education graduates at all levels and a widened participation by diverse groups of all social backgrounds. With students facing increasing difficulties in financing their educations and the significant cuts in student grants, Irish universities will find it tough to reach their targets of 40% completion rates. It is likely that an increase in third level fees would deter many potential students from entering third level education, resulting in a failure to attract a broader cross section of society. This would go against European targets.
The EU recognizes that the responsibility for delivering reforms in Higher Education is a matter of national competence. However, recent research shows that the challenges and policy responses transcend national borders. For this reason, this initiative is rooted in integrated guidelines and it urges all EU member states to collaborate and to reach the targets set by the Europe 2020 strategy.
However, with Ireland’s ranking in the league tables dropping drastically from 89 to 134 in the last two years, it is questionable that the Irish government can commit to these European guidelines. In spite of a deceptive 15% increase in first year enrollment rates in recent years, along with Ireland currently holding one of the highest attendance rates in Europe, Ireland falls short of reaching the other EU targets.
Since 2008, Irish third level college budgets have been slashed by up to 9% and have suffered up to 6% staff reduction. The combination of high enrollment rates with both staff and budget cuts, has led to serious questions being raised regarding the quality of Irish third level education within the context relative overcrowding in Irish universities. With such factors influencing the dramatic drop in Irish University rankings compared to other higher education institutions, a rapid amelioration of Irish rankings seems unlikely within the context of the current economic climate.
Though facing many challenges, this reform plan appears innovative. Above all it focuses on the young people of today who, according to Androulla Vassiliou, European Commissioner of Education, Culture, Multilingualism and Youth, can “use their education as a powerful diver of economic growth” to “open doors to better standards of living and opportunities.”