Close to the bone: Irish funding cuts spell crisis for sector

After two years of staff losses further reductions will hurt quality, universities warn. Hannah Fearn writes

September 19, 2010

Irish higher education is facing a crisis point in funding.

When the recession hit Western Europe in 2008, the Celtic Tiger breathed its last, and the end of a period of rapid economic growth left universities struggling to cope. Several institutions face multimillion-euro deficits.

Two years ago, Irish universities were told by the Higher Education Authority (HEA), the main funding body in Ireland, that they must cut their staff headcount by 3 per cent in 2009 and a further 3 per cent in 2010.

The reduction in numbers has already been achieved, but the cuts have come at a cost, not least because they have coincided with a record number of students in the country.

Figures from the HEA show that there has been a 12 per cent growth in the number of undergraduates and a 6 per cent boost to the number of postgraduates studying in Ireland in the past two years and demand for places is still rising.

Mike Jennings, general secretary of the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT), said the figures revealed “not just record numbers of undergraduates but postgraduates, international students and mature students too. This normally takes additional work and input by academic staff, and at a time when they’re being reduced.”

Quality, universities say, is already beginning to suffer, and the sector is telling the Irish government that it has now played its part in cutting public expenditure.

“As far as universities are concerned, we feel they have fully complied with [the edict to cut staff numbers] and we can do no more,” Mr Jennings said.

No pay, no cover

But the government thinks differently. The HEA has written to institutions to warn of further pain, telling them to plan now for additional reductions to their budgets.

“The situation that we’re in now is that it’s quite clear that there is going to be a significant cut in public expenditure because the government has to find £3 billion in savings,” said Ned Costello, chief executive of the Irish Universities Association.

Members of the IFUT are refusing to cover extra work created by the cuts if pay levels do not increase to reflect the increasing burden placed upon them.

Mr Jennings said that at present, when head of department or head of school posts are eliminated, the work is falling to individual academics.

“The system is coming under pressure because it simply can’t cope,” he said. “We’re saying staff should no longer do that work unless they’re being sufficiently remunerated.”

Until now, universities have agreed to make cuts voluntarily, preserving their institutional autonomy. The reduction in staffing levels has been achieved through offering early retirement and voluntary redundancy, and a process of natural wastage.

Resistance to further cuts

Calls for further cuts are likely to be resisted, but the union says that the government is already discussing the possibility of an amendment to the 1997 Universities Act which could mean that tenured academics could be made compulsorily redundant.

And under the Croke Park agreement, a deal cut between trade unions representing the public sector and the state, public sector pay is protected until 2014 if employers accept the rationalisation of working practices, including redundancy, in return.

The IFUT did not sign the agreement, fearing it would give the government carte blanche to make major changes to academic working conditions.

Mr Jennings described the deal as “a pig in a poke”, adding: “They were asking us to put our entire job contracts on the altar for negotiations.”

But although academics rejected the deal by a two-to-one majority, the government still considers it to stand, as the majority of the public sector is on board.

Ferdinand von Prondzynski, who stepped down as president of Dublin City University in July, said universities could be forced to fight back to protect their academic integrity and international reputation.

One option open to institutions is to voluntarily cap student numbers, a policy that would hurt the state at a time when it is keen to keep the numbers of people claiming benefits down by ensuring that those who are unable to find work can access study instead.

“Universities are taking the view that their quality has already been compromised and that any further reduction would be unsustainable and would create significant quality issues that couldn’t be kept invisible,” Professor von Prondzynski said.

He added that it would be “irresponsible” for universities to continue to let large numbers of students in. “The infrastructure isn’t there to cater for them,” he said.

Yet in a nation that currently sees 70 per cent of school leavers proceed to higher education, capping numbers would be a difficult decision to make.

“It’s a wonderful statistic and at any other time we would be shouting from the rooftops. But we’re just packing them in; it’s not fair on us and it’s not fair on them,” said Mr Jennings.

At present, domestic and European Union students in Ireland do not pay tuition fees, though they do pay a registration charge at the start of each academic year.

This is currently set at €1,500, but the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) has claimed that plans are afoot to increase this by at least €1,000 in 2011-12. Gary Redmond, president of the USI, said that such a move would be “fees by the back door, or fees by any other name”.

Fees would cheer managers

University managers say they would welcome the return of full undergraduate fees to help meet the financial shortfall and address growing deficits.

Colin Hunt, chair of the Hunt group of civil servants and industrialists, is to publish a highly influential report into the future of higher education in early autumn.

A leak to The Irish Times newspaper suggests that the report may back a new system of student fees involving the payment of full fees up front covered by a government loan, which would later be repaid once the graduate was earning.

The full recommendations will be discussed by the government in the coming months and are likely to shape the next 20 years of Irish higher education.

Meanwhile, the debate over future cuts continues. Tom Boland, chief executive of the HEA, confirmed that he had written to universities to ask them to “plan for a further reduction in the allocation to higher education and thus reduction in individual budgets” next year.

“I am sure that this came as little surprise to them,” he said.

He added: “It is the view of the HEA that we should move away from the requirement to cut headcount per se and to control of spending through budgets, admittedly budgets that will be at best static but much more likely to reduce further.”

Mr Boland believes this will give universities more freedom to manage the “difficult financial situation”.

“In this way we believe the sector stands a better chance of successfully operating within reduced budgets while maintaining quality,” he said.

But universities remain unconvinced, and are most troubled by the fear that the government does not yet have a long-term solution to the problem of university funding.

“Where we go from here is a bit of an imponderable,” said Mr Costello. “You just get closer and closer to the bone.”

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