It’s about time

Dr John Hegarty, Provost of TCD, via the IUA website.Dr Hugh Brady, President of UCD, via the IUA website.For too long, Irish universities have hoped that the many developments in graduate funding to develop a Fourth Level in the Irish university sector in recent years would trickle down to offset the ongoing cuts in third level undergraduate funding. It hasn’t happened. Moreover, it was never going to happen. In effect, funds were taken from the broad-based undergraduate sector, and eventually returned in part to highly targeted elements of the post-graduate sector. It is a short-sighted policy: if there is no support for the undergraduate sector, whence will the graduates come for the post-graduate sector? It follows, therefore, that a successful, generously funded, fourth level needs to be constructed upon an equally successful, and equally generously funded, third level sector.

Dr John Hegarty, Provost of TCD (my ultimate boss) (pictured above left) and Dr Hugh Brady, President of UCD (pictured above right), who have rather successfully chased the fourth level funding such as that from the Programme for Research in Third Level Institutions over the past few years (see, eg, Hanafin to allocate €510m after university chiefs’ protest; Irish Times, sub req’d), have now (rather belatedly) realised this and have therefore begun to articulate the crisis in the undergraduate third level sector (Belfast Telegraph | | Irish Independent | Irish Times here, here and here | IOL | RTÉ). As I say in the title to this post, it’s about time. For too long, the undergraduate sector, and in particular the non-science elements, of the undergraduate sector, has suffered through persistent lack of funding; and it’s about time that the heads of the leading Irish universities have begun to make the point.

Funding for universities in Ireland comes from four major sources: the government’s direct subvention; the various Irish, European and international graduate and research funding bodies; philantropy; and exploiting intellectual property and links with industry.

Each of these has serious problems. Government core funding per student has been reduced by over 33 per cent since 1995; research funding is largely focussed on specific graduate projects with little or nothing directly or indirectly for the universities more generally or for the undergraduate sector in particular; philanthropy has built great buildings and seeded signature developments but is unattracted by the quotidian concerns of third level needs; and exploitation of intellectual property is still in its infancy in Irish universities, and is in any event similar to graduate research funding in the paucity of its impact on the undergraduate side.

Each of these will therefore have to be developed. Core funding will have to be increased, either by the increase of the government grant per student, or by supplementing it by charging fees to the students as the OECD recommended (neither of which is politically palatable at present: the economic downturn makes funding increases unlikely, and anyway the health service is in an even bigger mess and thus a more deserving candidate for whatever spare money there might be in the shrinking government coffers; and there is no political will at all to re-introduce third level fees, let alone to allow the universities to set them at levels which would properly support the sector). Research funding will have to be allowed to have a more widespread impact on the universities which after all are providing the crucible for the research (but this will require a significant change in the cultures both of the funding bodies, which understandably want the maximum possible research return for their euros, and of the successful bidders, who equally understandably want to retain as much of the funding as possible for the actual research). Philanthropy at present is all about the headline donations, so the universities are seeking to encourage smaller scale ongoing which can go towards maintaining core activities (but there there is little culture of ongoing philanthropy in Ireland, and large resistance among graduates to doing do). Exploitation of IP, and greater links with industry, tend to reinforce graduate research and will require the same kind of demanding change as in the case of public research funding. None of this will be easy; and advances will have to occur on all four difficult fronts at once. But if the government were to do something with the core grant, it could be just the sort of signal that potential funders in the other three categories might heed.

Indeed, this is an opportune time for this debate. As The Irish Times points out, the article by Brady and Hegarty comes as Minister for Education Mary Hanafin prepares a new strategy for higher education (about which I have already blogged) but

the university chiefs signal that while the strategy is welcome, it “must not be used to shirk the immediate funding problem”.

I agree. There will certainly be much to discuss at Critical Thinking: The Galway Symposium on the Future of Universities in June (hat tip: Summa cum laude) It’s about time that Irish universities started talking about this in earnest. And it’s about time that the government did something. It’s about time.