Funding the learning curve

IMPACT organiser Joe O'Connor works with the union's Boards & Voluntary agencies branch.
IMPACT organiser Joe O’Connor works with the union’s Boards & Voluntary agencies branch and is a former president of The Union of Students in Ireland (USI).

IMPACT organiser Joe O’Connor writes in this week’s blog about the work of the Expert Group on Future Funding for Higher Education. Joe was appointed to the group last year by the then Minister for Education and Skills, Ruairi Quinn TD. The group held its first consultation last week. Joe looks at the challenge ahead, and the importance of resolving the funding crisis in higher education.

I was appointed to the Expert Group on Future Funding for Higher Education last July by the Minister for Education and Skills. It is, for me, a unique opportunity to make a contribution to resolve the crisis in funding third level education. Solving the problem will be, I believe, a crucial enabler in the future prosperity of this country.

As a student representative at GMIT and with USI, the perspective of students crippled by a perfect storm of grant cuts, increasing college costs and reduced household incomes is one I’m very familiar with.

It’s been less than two decades since Ireland abolished third level fees, but now we have the second-highest level of student charges in the OECD area with a student contribution of €3,000.

Huge increases in demand for higher education, coupled with very significant reductions in state funding have caused a dramatic fall in funding per student. Demand for higher education is projected to continue growing at a rapid pace, but there is no pot of gold to hand to meet that growing demand.

While there are varied views within the sector on the best solutions to address the funding gap, there is little disagreement on the core problem, or the existence of the crisis itself, which poses a twin threat to higher education. It’s a crisis that will erode the quality of outcomes for students, and it will erode equality of access to higher education. This is a concern for us all.

Before any decision is reached, we must achieve a broad consensus and a public appreciation of the role of Ireland’s higher education system, and an understanding of its value both to individuals and society.

Our higher education system is much more than a production line that feeds graduates into the jobs market. It cultivates critical thinking, innovation and personal development, and produces graduates who’ll contribute more in taxes, participate more in our democracy, and contribute to the development of our economy and our society. Higher education is an investment with a guaranteed return, which is greater than the sum of its parts.

It is therefore the responsibility of the group to examine all available funding options, how they could be implemented in an Irish context, and the likely implications of each of the alternative funding models.

Ultimately this will be both a political and policy choice which will I believe be directed by our answer to the following question: In a climate of limited resources, what degree of priority do we place on the contribution of higher education to the future development of the Irish economy and our society?

This question also forms part of a wider debate, one which trade unions are keenly engaged in: What are the appropriate levels of taxation required to fund high-quality universal public services?

We held our first consultation event last Friday (30th January) which offered stakeholders – parents, students, higher education providers, taxpayers, employers, social activists and public representatives  – the opportunity to have contribute to the discussion and, crucially, offer our group the opportunity to listen. I was delighted that the chair of IMPACT’s Education division, Gina O’Brien, was in attendance to ensure the views of IMPACT members were taken into account.

The group’s first consultation paper on ‘The Role, Value and Scale of Higher Education in Ireland’ provides a comprehensive analysis on what it is we’re funding, and why. By this time next year, hopefully we will have a much clearer picture on how we are going to fund it.