Criticism of the government’s National Development Plan, launched this week, has been widespread. Observers argue that the plan overpromises and will inevitably underdeliver. Its commitments are vague and its timelines are non-existent in some cases. Higher education is no exception to these observations.
While the provisions for higher level overall are watery, what’s most concerning is the section on “non-exchequer” sources of income. The government’s suggestion that philanthropy be considered a straight form of income is a major red flag.
Firstly, the logistics are unclear: should colleges be striving to have a certain proportion of their income come from such sources? Will the government make up the difference if they don’t? Appearing at the bottom of the section on higher education, the notion that colleges should be reducing their reliance on state funding looks like a tacked-on attempt to wash its hands of the perennial issue of funding the sector.
If the government does expect colleges to better incorporate philanthropy into its budget, it should think again: six-figure donations are not a regular stream of income. Colleges can try to plan the timeline of their fundraising efforts, but there’s no pinpointing when a large donation will get over the line.
Moreover, philanthropic funds aren’t distributed as colleges want them to be: wealthy donors, as Trinity knows all too well, tend to fund big, flashy projects – E3 and the Trinity Business School spring to mind. These are certainly integral for the development of the university, but other, less exciting areas that are overlooked will not benefit from this avenue of funding.
But what’s most worrying about relying on “non-exchequer” streams is inequity. Trinity, at least, is an internationally renowned university with hundreds of very successful alumni with deep pockets. Smaller colleges – particularly the technological universities and remaining institutes of technology – simply cannot plan to rake in millions in donations. Expecting them to rely on philanthropy in the same way as the likes of Trinity and University College Dublin is ignorant and negligent.
If the government is serious about higher education being the “anchors for enterprise and regional growth”, it needs to provide the sector with secure funding streams – not encouraging them to rely on gifts. Loans from the European Central Bank and donations from prestigious alumni have their place, but exchequer funding must remain the bedrock of colleges’ balance sheets.