Six years after the Cassells Report laid out three paths for sustainable funding of the Irish third level system, the government has published a long-awaited funding framework which it says “settles the question on funding higher education”.
The “Funding the Future” framework outlines the government’s plan for the sustainable funding of higher education, parts of which draw heavily on the Cassells Report. For example, the framework prioritises increased funding for student supports, something the 2016 report made clear was necessary to ensure a sustainable future for third level.
Despite this influence, “Funding the Future” did not directly follow any single option suggested by the Cassells Report. Instead, the government’s strategy can be seen as a compromise between options one and two. Option one proposed abolishing the student contribution charge and significantly increasing state funding, while option two also proposed an increase in exchequer support, but called for the retention of the €3,000 student contribution charge and a potential expansion of grants. “Funding the Future” does not abolish the student contribution charge, but it does not maintain the status quo either. Instead, the government proposes the gradual reduction of the contribution charge with increased financial support for students.
The framework also establishes plans to improve the overall quality of higher education in Ireland, address skills gaps in the population and makes increasing the participation of under-represented groups a key priority. Here are our top five takeaways from the government’s third level funding framework.
Mix of Fee Reductions and Targeted Supports
While the framework did not go as far as abolishing the student contribution charge and making higher education free, it committed to gradual reductions in the student contribution charge and increases in student grants.
The framework did not specify the amount by which the student contribution charge will be reduced, although it was reported in January that a reduction of up to €1000 could be sought in this year’s budget. This lack of specificity was noted by the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) which also pointed out that there has been no funding specifically allocated for the reduction of fees.
Financial supports for students will also be increased. The framework promises an increase to the SUSI grant, which could potentially be targeted at the most disadvantaged students. Income thresholds will also be reviewed with the aim of expanding eligibility.
Last October’s Budget saw the first expansion of the SUSI grant in a decade. The framework noted that this stagnation led to fewer students qualifying, while those that were eligible saw less of their living expenses covered as the cost of living rose by 25 per cent for students over the same period.
To address this disparity, “Funding the Future” will establish an annual review conducted by the Department of Higher Education with the aim of feeding an assessment of the costs of education and changes required in student grants and tuition fees into the budgetary process.
The framework also aims to increase participation in higher education of under-represented groups. It noted that only 10 per cent of the student population in Ireland came from disadvantaged areas, according to data from 2018/19. While the expansion of financial supports may help to achieve greater participation for disadvantaged students, the framework provides little detail on plans to realise these goals, with the responsibility placed on universities to become more accessible “in return” for the increase in funding.
Student Loans Ruled Out
The government has ruled out the use of student loans in funding higher education. While this is unsurprising given previous commitments by Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris, it is still significant that this is now official government policy.
The Cassells Report had suggested that one option for funding higher education could be the introduction of a student loan system whereby students would not pay upfront fees, but would be required to repay state-provided loans once they reached a certain income level. The repayments would have been set based on a certain percentage of a graduate’s income.
With concerns raised that the introduction of student loans would lead to a situation similar to that of Britain and the United States where students are burdened with large amounts of debt, this proposal would have been a tough sell to the electorate.
Both the USI and the Technological Higher Education Association (THEA) have welcomed the decision to rule out student loans as a source of funding for the higher education sector.
Following austerity imposed by successive governments after the financial crash, funding for Irish higher education declined from €1.4 billion in 2008 to €923 million by 2015.
Simultaneous increases in the number of students completing higher education made the effects of the cuts all the more severe. The result has been that third level has widely been considered to be in crisis for a number of years, making a new, sustainable funding model critical to the health and future functioning of the sector.
Since 2016, there has been a reinvestment of €1.1 billion into higher education, bringing the current annual spend in Ireland to €2 billion.
“Funding the Future” proposes an additional investment of €307 million to fill a core funding gap the government says it has identified. The money will come from additional state investment, increased contributions by employers through the National Training Fund and the retention of student contributions.
However, questions remain regarding whether this level of funding is really sustainable. The framework itself noted that the core funding gap identified did not include costs related to future demographic increases with even a low-growth projection estimating that student numbers will peak at 223,000 in 2030. Additionally, this estimate did not include rising pension costs associated with an ageing population, potential pay increases and the implementation of new policy proposals for higher education. The government has committed, however, to considering demographic changes in a spending review to be carried out this year.
Even with the additional investment, the government’s proposal falls short of figures outlined by the Cassells Report, which estimated that funding for higher education needed to reach €2.4 billion by 2021. According to the government’s figures, a €300 million investment in addition to the annual funding of €2 billion would only total €2.3 billion. The €300 million is also not an annual addition and will be invested over a number of years rather than immediately. If the Cassells Report accurately assessed the needs of Ireland’s higher education sector, it is safe to say that “Funding the Future” does not come close to settling the question.
Improving the Quality of Higher Education
The framework also outlines measures that will be taken to improve the quality of higher education in Ireland. The government’s plan aims to increase the international rankings of Irish higher education institutions including by reducing the student to academic staff ratio. The European average student to staff ratio is 15.3:1 compared with 19:1 in Ireland.
Trinity, for example, is set to increase student numbers over 20,000 for the first time this year despite a student to staff ratio already at 17.7:1 in 2021. In her “Imagine Trinity” election manifesto, Provost Linda Doyle estimated that a decrease to a 16:1 student to staff ratio would require an additional investment of €40 million per year and that a 12:1 ratio would cost over €88 million annually. If the government wants to achieve the EU average across the country, serious and prolonged investment is going to be required.
The framework also sets out plans to reduce the level of precarious employment of academic staff, something that would benefit academics and students alike.
To ensure that the additional funding results in better educational outcomes, the government’s plan proposes the measurement of several key metrics, better specifying quality, evaluation of learning outcomes and competences and ensuring effective steering of the higher education sector. These new means of keeping tabs on the sector will be facilitated through the introduction of a revised Performance Framework as part of the Higher Education Authority (HEA) Bill.
Addressing Skills Shortages
Another priority of “Funding the Future” is ensuring that higher education provides graduates with the necessary skills for Ireland’s society and economy. The framework noted that the lack of core funding meant that institutions increased the provision of some disciplines while neglecting others.
The framework aims to ensure that skills provided by higher education institutions are balanced and diversified and will do this by realigning current funding.
Skills related to the provision of public services are to be prioritised. For example, “Funding for Future” aims to ensure that Ireland can produce its healthcare workers domestically rather than relying on overseas recruitment. Additionally, the government hopes this plan will increase the supply of teachers and help to implement ambitious policies including Sláintecare, Housing for All and the Climate Action Plan.