As university and higher-education stakeholders know all too well, the government has acted on the Cassells report at a glacial – even imperceptible – pace.
This week, Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris announced his plan to bring proposals for funding in higher education based on the Cassells report to the government by the end of the year.
Published in 2016, the three options proposed to solve the crisis shortage of funding have been mulled over time and time again, and even sent to the European Commission for economic analysis – a move seen by many as an attempt to prolong making a decision on the report’s recommendations.
But the state of Ireland’s universities and colleges is very different now to what it was six years ago. In ways, universities have already moved on from Cassells by sourcing alternative methods of funding – from increasing rent in student accommodation, to relying on alumni for donations.
In terms of the options available to Harris, it is difficult to be optimistic. While it is encouraging that Harris is staunchly opposed to the introduction of student loans – the most contentious of the options laid out in the report – it begs the question of what a Fine Gael-Fianna Fáil-Green Party government, realistically, will do instead. They may propose lowering fees, but Fine Gael in particular is unlikely to sign off on the total abolition of the student contribution.
And despite Harris’ argument that funding in the higher education sector has increased by half a billion euro, the number of students has increased since then, particularly with all the extra places being brought in to cope with demand. Funding has lagged far behind what is needed.
The Cassells question has dragged on for far too long because of the lacklustre response from successive governments – it didn’t even feature in the Programme for Government last year.
If Harris can resurrect Cassells with a solid plan for higher education when he brings his proposals to the government, more power to him. But if his party had wanted to bring about real change to the way higher education is funded, it would have done so by now.