The Irish Universities Association (IUA), the Technological Higher Education Association (THEA) as well as the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) have praised the government’s new third level funding framework, which commits a €307 million injection over several years and promises a gradual reduction in the student contribution charge.
In a press statement today, IUA Director General Jim Miley said that “despite the long wait of almost six years since the Cassells Report, it is heartening that Government has finally agreed a plan to address the persistent deficit in funding higher education”.
“For the first time, there is now a definitive recognition of the reality of the investment needs to underpin quality and enable our universities to continue to produce world-class graduates.”
“However”, Miley added, “today’s announcement will mean nothing if the Government fails to follow through on this policy commitment with a significant first tranche of investment in Budget 2023 and a removal of the embargo on hiring permanent staff under the Employment Control Framework”.
In a press statement reacting to the government’s announcement, Chair of THEA and President of TU Shannon Professor Vincent Cunnane said: “While we welcome today’s announcement, we recognize that the implementation of this new policy will be critical in terms of directing this investment to those in greatest need and we look forward to working with the Implementation Review Group to ensure this delivery.”
“The Minister has clearly outlined that the source of the increase of core funding will be exchequer-based and has secured the approval of the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in his exclusion of the possibility of student loans”, he said.
The USI also welcomed the government’s plans for increased funding for the higher education sector, but called for more detail to be published regarding proposed reductions in the student contribution charge.
The union – which has repeatedly called for Ireland to move towards a “fully publicly funded” system – expressed frustration that the government continues to plan to fund third level with the help of student fees.
In a press statement, USI President Clare Austick said that “we have to stop relying on students and their families to pay such a significant amount towards the funding of higher education”.
“While there has been mention of bringing down the costs for students through better student grants and reduced student fees, there is no funding allocated for the reduction of the Student Contribution Charge”, she said.
“We welcome that this conversation is happening and that we finally have some detail on how [the] government plans to fund higher education in the future.”
“The Cassells Report was published in 2016 and was sent to the European Commission in 2019 for further analysis, so this announcement was a long time coming. USI welcomes the increase in core funding for colleges and universities, which is needed and will come with reform of our institutions.”
One key goal set out in the government’s announcement today is to increase higher education participation rates among underrepresented groups. Austick called for a “holistic approach to removing the barriers to third level education”, which she said must involve “the scrapping of student fees and bringing the SUSI grant to a level that reflects the actual costs of living”.
The USI statement added that the new funding framework “should not just be about reverting back to the system that was in place before the economic crash, but about creating a structure of funding that provides us with an equitable, inclusive, accessible, and supportive higher education system.”
The strategy announced today aims to improve funding for student supports, which has been relatively stagnant since 2011 despite a 25 per cent increase to the cost of student living over the same period, according to the government.
Among its immediate priorities is the reduction of the student to staff ratio to the EU average of 15.3 to 1. Currently, the average ratio in Irish universities is 19 to 1. Additionally, the government aims to increase third-level participation rates among under-represented groups.
In a press statement, Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris said: “Today is an important day for the future of our country as we set out the vision and direction of higher education funding in this country.”
“It is my firm intention to take the pressure off families and listen to the calls of our younger generations. Measures to reduce the cost of education through changes to the Student Grant Scheme and the student contribution will be on the table for the coming budgets”, he said.
“As always, the people we serve are central to all we do. Today, we settle the question on higher education funding. We will increase our investment. We will also support our students.”
The new plan for higher education funding in response to the Cassells report of 2016 was due to be published before the end of 2021.
Cassells offered three solutions to the funding issues faced by Irish higher education institutes.
The first option was the abolition of the student contribution and the creation of a predominantly state-funded system. Introduced in 2011, the contribution is currently €3,000 per year and represents the highest third-level fees in the EU.
The second option was to keep the current student contribution charge and inject an additional €600 million into third level annually by 2021, almost double Harris’s latest funding commitment.
The third and most contentious option was the introduction of an income-contingent loan system. However, Harris ruled out this option early on, saying that “they might work on paper, they don’t work in reality”.