Show your strengths - we won't fund weaknesses

Concentration on the cards as Ireland shifts to contractual cash. Jack Grove reports from Dublin

September 27, 2012

Reforms to Irish higher education are gathering pace as universities strive to identify their strengths before the introduction of performance-related funding.

The Irish government has asked universities, colleges and institutes of technology to submit institutional reviews by October stating how their activities contribute to national objectives. Once each institution has identified its areas of teaching excellence - such as science provision or widening access - the state will set targets to determine their future funding.

Performance-related funding is the key plank of a national strategy announced 18 months ago that seeks to create "a more coordinated higher education system".

"We are moving from a set of individual institutions with their own history and way of doing things to a more joined-up system," said Lewis Purser, director of academic affairs at the Irish Universities Association. "We will be moving towards a more contractual basis, rather than just automatic funding."

The system is likely to force the Republic of Ireland's seven universities, along with its university colleges and institutes of technology, to drop courses in areas where they cannot prove their expertise. For example, the institutes of technology, which had expanded their portfolios to offer degrees in law, psychology and business, may no longer receive state funding for such courses.

"Some universities and colleges had expanded into fields where they had not been active," said Mr Purser, who argued that institutions' undergraduate programmes did not always tally with their expertise.

The reforms, set to take effect next year, will be accompanied by deep budget cuts. Together they are likely to force major structural change within the Irish academy.

Core funding will fall by 2 per cent in both 2012 and 2013, then 1 per cent in 2014 and 2015 even after higher tuition fees are taken into account, the government's comprehensive spending report for 2012-14 has stated.

Faced with such retrenchment, which follows the harsh austerity measures already taken, the sector will be forced to cut weaker areas or collaborate to save money.

For instance, a report published this month recommends that teacher training be concentrated in six institutional clusters rather than offered by 19 public institutions.

Funding is likely to be concentrated on fewer institutions in other subjects, too, said Mr Purser. With a post-Celtic Tiger "baby boom" generation set to soon reach university age, state funds needed to be used more effectively, he added.

Muiris O'Connor, principal officer in policy and planning at the Higher Education Authority, said the state wanted "institutions to identify and build upon their strengths, so we can find complementarity". Although he acknowledged it was difficult to "balance accountability with institutional autonomy", he believed that Ireland was "behind the curve [compared with others] in terms of developing an accountability framework".

With many Irish families likely to struggle if student registration fees rise - they now stand at €2,250 (£1,800) a year - the government needed to save through restructuring if the nation's academy were to prosper, he argued.

"In the current climate, getting much more (money) from students is not possible. It therefore makes sense to concentrate on what we can do."

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