There are issues in Irish politics that get more attention than others. It’s a sad reality of democracy – issues that get votes have money thrown their way and others, perhaps more important issues, are left to one side. The funding of higher education in Ireland is one such issue. However, recently Irish parties have been taking the issue more seriously and forming policies that could make a difference. Meanwhile, in all the delay, both movements and anger amongst students is rising, but is it enough to make politicians finally take notice and act?
In Denmark, higher education is almost entirely funded by the state and provides citizens with free undergraduate and postgraduate education. Spending on education as a percentage of GDP in 2014 was 6.5%. Meanwhile, in Ireland, the figure was 4.9% which dropped dramatically to 3.8% the following year. The University of Copenhagen, which is a similar size to UCD is a well-renowned university and remarkably has 4.3 students to every staff member compared to 23.1 in UCD. While Denmark is often given as an example of the best state-funded higher education model, other countries have moved away from this, shifting the balance of funding from the state to the individual.
The United States of America is renowned for its extortionate cost to attend college. As of 2019, there are 45 million borrowers of student debt who collectively owe more than $1.5 trillion. However, the US boasts a huge amount of the world’s leading higher education institutions. 7 out of the top 10 universities in the world are located in the United States according to the World University Rankings. The funding of US universities has allowed for a massive amount of learning and research. The research expenditure of Maryland’s Johns Hopkins University was a staggering $2.5 billion in 2017. These levels of expenditure have only been made possible by the funding of private individuals. It’s not just in the US, however, in 2012 the UK faced a similar funding crisis to in universities as Ireland. Fees were introduced along with a student loan scheme which has somewhat reversed the crisis.
Ireland seems to have the worst of both worlds. State funding of Irish higher education institutions is very small while the fees students pay is not enough to properly fund the institutions. Ireland is well short of the state funding required to reach Denmark’s levels but also does not have a system in place which means universities do not have to rely on state funding. The consequences of this have been dire for Irish universities which have on average been steadily declining in world rankings. This funding crisis has severely impacted students with a massive ratio of students to staff, insufficient student services and universities being forced to cut numbers of Irish students and increase rents. After many years of funding cuts, research by the European Universities Association concluded that ‘the long-term sustainability of the higher education system in Ireland remains an issue.’ These are frightening deductions but what is happening in the political sphere? Are politicians finally starting to take notice?
Unfortunately, a quick solution to this is unlikely and the reasons are political. There is far from agreement as to how best fund higher education in Ireland. We recently spoke to some political societies on campus to ask for their parties take on the issue and the varying responses reflected the broad debate which is taking place on the issue in Irish politics. Fine Gael proposed ‘the introduction of income-contingent student loans,’ It also did not want higher education institutions to rely on state funding, which could be heavily reduced if the country is soon to head into a recession. They said that relying on state funding would mean ‘the third level sector would remain dependent on the ever-varying limits of the public purse and without sufficient autonomy to compete, innovate and attract global talent.’ On the other side of the argument, however, the Social Democrats argued that ‘education should be a public good, not a commodity only available to people from a wealthy background.’ It criticised the government for failing to properly invest saying that such ‘funding shortfalls necessitate a need for corporate investment which in turn creates an environment where universities make decisions based on attracting funding, not enhancing student welfare and learning facilities.’ Fianna Fáil proposed ‘a freeze on third-level fees to prevent the cost of third-level skyrocketing further’ and the establishment of ‘a Department for Higher Education and Research.’
While the political parties continue to bicker over this issue, many also criticise the universities for wasteful spending. A left-wing group of political societies in UCD came together in January forming a group called ‘Fix our Education’ demanding UCD to addresses issues such as disability services, affordable accommodation and improved mental health services. While it is right to scrutinise the spending of higher education institutions, the root of the problem seems to be both a lack of funding and the absence of a political will and consensus to solve the funding crisis.
Conor Paterson – Politics Editor