Funding on the line as Irish universities await new government

Sinn Féin and Fianna Fáil both pledged changes to tuition fees, maintenance grants and university funding ahead of election

February 19, 2020
Source: Getty

The surprising outcome of last week’s general election in the Republic of Ireland could result in substantial changes to the funding of higher education, but questions remain over the affordability of such policies.

The left-wing Sinn Féin topped the popular vote and won 37 seats, while the centre-right Fianna Fáil ended up with 38. The ruling Fine Gael, another centre-right party, won 35, with its leader, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, accepting that his party was “defeated” and would go into opposition.

The result means that no single party can govern alone, and a coalition would need to be formed of at least three parties. Regardless of the make-up of that government, the new government could make significant changes to higher education funding, observers said.

In its election manifesto, Sinn Féin pledged to abolish university tuition fees, claiming that the policy would cost €243 million (£202 million), and also promised to increase the student maintenance grant by 10 per cent. It added that one of its priorities was to ensure “adequate funding is provided to higher education institutions”, but did not provide further details.

Meanwhile, Fianna Fáil said it would freeze tuition fees, increase the undergraduate maintenance grant by 20 per cent, restore postgraduate grants and provide an additional €100 million per year for higher education. However, the latter measure was pending the result of the European Commission’s ongoing review of university funding.

Fianna Fáil also pledged to establish a new Department of Higher Education and Research, to undertake a review of academic selection boards to enhance gender equality in senior roles, and to reform Science Foundation Ireland to “correct” its shift towards industry.

Gerry McKenna, vice-president of the Royal Irish Academy, which had lobbied for a department for higher education and research, said there was “a recognition across all parties that higher education in the Republic is significantly underfunded and that this is having a negative impact in terms of the world ranking of Irish universities”.

However, he said that Sinn Féin in particular made so many funding pledges that it was “difficult to know when and if they would all be implemented”.

“If Sinn Féin’s policy of abolishing fees was implemented, that would require a very substantial injection of government funding to make up the shortfall for universities, never mind the increase that everyone seems to agree is needed,” he said.

“If you look at the exit polls, higher education did not figure as a priority for voters. Most voters were focused on health and housing. So I’m not sure what would happen in the short term in terms of higher education.”

Last week Fianna Fáil said that it would not enter a coalition with Sinn Féin, leaving the left-wing party acknowledging that it would be difficult for it to enter government; but it could remain highly influential.

Maria Campbell, lecturer in education at the National University of Ireland, Galway, said that higher education did not feature at all in the preceding general election and consequently core university funding levels are 40 per cent lower than they were 10 years ago.

She credited the Irish Universities Association and the Union of Students in Ireland working together to form a “unified voice” to the sector’s comparative prominence in this month’s election.

“There’s an acknowledgement that there are serious issues in relation to lack of funding,” she said.

Dr Campbell added that the fact that Irish universities have been falling down university rankings “plays in [the sector’s] favour” in terms of an upcoming boost in funding.

ellie.bothwell@timeshighereducation.com

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