Snarking the Hunt – I – Who pays for College?

Purple Globe, via School of Education TCD websiteI spent this morning at a fascinating Seminar (pdf) on the National Strategy for Higher Education (the Hunt Report, which I blogged here), organised by my TCD colleagues Dr Andrew Loxley, Dr Aiden Seery, and Dr John Walsh, (CAVE, School of Education, TCD). This is the first of four three blogposts about the event. The first panel concerned Who pays for College? Expansion and Sustainability in Higher Education. It was chaired by Prof Maria Slowey (DCU), and featured Mike Jennings (IFUT), Tony Donohoe (IBEC), Ryan Bartlett (President, TCD SU; and student in School of Education, TCD), and Dr Erika Doyle (TRSA).

In her introduction, Maria pointed out that the question of “who pays?” is much broader than fees, hence questions of expansion and sustainability in the subtitle.

Mike began his very witty presentation by observing that the Hunt Report is underwhelming and full of internal contradictions. Erika similarly observed that the Report is long on aspiration, but short on detail. And both of them felt that it betrays its lack of engagement with serving academics; and they and Ryan all observed that, where there are bars to access to higher education (HE), one family member may not be able to go to College to allow another to do so. They also pointed out that a degree is now the basic access point to employment, where the Leaving Cert once was. Mike took the question “who pays for people to go to College?” and posed the corollary “who will pay if people don’t/can’t go to College?” His answer to the to latter is: Society. Hence, he – and Erika and Ryan – argued that HE is a societal benefit, so society should have to pay, funded via a fair and progressive tax system.

Mike pointed out that we have the highest participation rates in our history; they are good by european and international standards; and the trajectory continues to be upwards. But he, Ryan and Erika said that much more needs to be done to improve access, especially in non-traditional constituencies. However, although we are good at expansion, Mike said that sustainability is open to question, given staff reductions due to our current economic circumstances, and to staff demoralisation, not just given our current economic circumstances bot also as a consequence of cheap political and journalistic populism leading to a misinformed and often hostile public. Moreover, Ryan pointed out that sustainability in difficult economic times requires efficiency, but we much also avoid making too many mistakes (such as making too many deep and irreversible cutbacks). It is easier to make changes when there are fewer economic pressures, but much harder to do so in a difficult economic climate; Ryan said that the politicians he talks to don’t defend increases in student contribution as a good social idea, but just as an economic necessity. And Erika pointed out that the Hunt-inspired process of rationalisation of higher education institutions (HEIs) is not clear yet; she argued that it should be organic and institutional, rather than externally imposed. She also said that the lot of researchers in HEIs is not a happy one: economic straits and project-based funding leads to short-term contracts and lack of career progression, a fragmented research strategy, and a dissipation of staff and experience.

Mike concluded by arguing that, as a matter of principle, education is not a commodity, but a right for all citizens to personal and societal enrichment. And Ryan echoed this, arguing that a good quality education system has many social benefits. Moreover, both of them argued that fees would definitely have impact on participation: for Mike, if taxes dissuade cigarette consumption, plastic bag usage, and so on, then fees will have similar dissuasive effect. On the other hand, Tony disagreed not just with Mike’s reference to “commodification” but with a lot of what Mike, Ryan and Erika had to say. He said that the debate should be about how to ensure that those who are able for HE and who want to access HE should be able to do so. Given the increase in participation levels, references to social gains are too vague, and there is no credible alternative to fees. In 2004, the OECD said the Irish HE funding model was not sustainable, and it is even less so today. As a consequence, it is necessary to introduce some element of cost-sharing between individual and the state, in particular by introducing an income-contingent loan scheme plus a proper means-tested grant.

Tony argued that it was unfortunate that the fees issue has overshadowed debate over the Hunt Report. In a direct engagement with Mike and Erika’s points about the lack of detail in the Report, Tony argued that it is a high level strategy, with the detail on implementation now being filled in by the Higher Education Authority (HEA). Current funding models have perverse incentives which have had a negative impact on teaching and learning. Moreover, there is a need for greater integration and collaboration; the duplication of courses and degrees is unsustainable; so mergers may be necessary, as will differentiation and the development of centres of excellence.

On Tony’s point relating to duplication and differentiation, in the second session, Dr Austin Hanley (Athlone IT), pointed out that producing more of an output with similar or reduced resources is called productivity, of which IBEC is usually fully in favour! There were many other cross-overs between sessions. In particular, references in the first session to the impact of fees on the student experience taken up in second session, which will be the subject of my next post.