Higher Education (HE) is at the core of Irish economy and an excellent promoter of growth, but the reduction of state funding and the increased reliance on non-Exchequer funds is deeply undermining the sector. Over the past years, HE has encountered extreme budgetary pressures due to the financial crisis of 2008 and has yet to recover from it, although UCD is doing financially well. The university’s wealth is to be attributed to the increment in private funding which primarily comes from non-EU and Mature student fees as well as from private investors.
According to the most recent disaggregated data on Higher Education Institutions funding (HEI) from the Higher Education Authority (HEA) report for the year 2015/2016 the largest segment of funds, 35%, comes from non-Exchequer fees, while only 12% from Exchequer fees and 25% deriving from the State through grants provision. As highlighted by Students’ Union President Joanna Siewierska in a recent statement: “this depletion in public funds results in a depletion in accountability and it is having a detrimental effect on the progression of the core goals of higher education”.
The sector is undergoing a process of commercialisation by making access to university a commodity rather than a public good available to all income brackets. Such extensive reliance on private funding is deeply affecting the credibility of universities as education and students’ welfare are no longer the top priorities. As a result, non-state funding is becoming a “massive barrier to social justice and equality” remarked SU President. A clear example of this trend is to be found in the delivery of luxurious students’ accommodations throughout Irish cities. External partners are funding universities through the distribution of high-end housing that are “completely unfit for the purpose of accommodating the average student in Ireland” stated Siewierska. Universities are now being seen as a business to attract private investors and students as their clients.
The ongoing crisis and unsustainable funding system have been acknowledged by the Irish Government who has set out a plan to tackle the issue. It has been declared that an additional €1 billion in annual funding is needed by 2030 in order to meet the current challenges the sector is facing and €600 million by 2021 to stabilise the offer and demand request. Despite an intense growth of students enrolling in higher education, funding has remained low. Statistics show that it has stayed 6% below 2008 standards before the crisis. The Cassells Report, issued in 2016, clearly stated that in order to tackle this critical situation an extra capital of €5.5 billion by 2030 is necessary for HE to “sufficiently cater for the increased student numbers, capital upgrades, health and safety issues, equipment renewal and ongoing maintenance”.
Considering that more than 50% of university funding comes from private sources, universities are now classified as market producers outside the ‘General Government’ as declared by the Overview of Tertiary Education Funding in Ireland issued on 25th November 2019, confirming the fears of the Students’ Union President.
Alessia Mennitto – Reporter