An unsustainable third level system?

The third level sector has taken a severe financial hit in recent years. The DCU union, for example, has pointed out that there has been a 20% drop in state funding per third level student between 2003 and 2012 (based on 2012 prices). But let’s look at the numbers more closely (CSO). First, here is a plot of spending on third level over the period 2003-2012. All values have been normalised with the 2003 value.

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It is clear that the third level system is under severe demographic pressure meaning that the reduction in total spend back to below 2003 levels has had a very significant effect on the spend-per-student.

If you look at the second level numbers, we see that the state has ‘protected’ this sector to some extent, keeping the total spend constant in recent years against a less challenging demographic.

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The numbers for the primary sector show that that sector has been similarly protected.

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Therefore, the picture that emerges is one where the damage to the primary and secondary systems is being limited while the third level system is suffering hugely.   It is interesting  that the decline in per-student funding predates the financial crisis, suggesting that the reduction in third level funding is, in fact, a deliberate policy designed to place more of an onus on the universities to be partly self-funding. Given the nature of our political system, I suspect that this is not ideology-driven but simply based on political expediency. I imagine that funding third level is not a great vote-getter. Many politicians – and voters – see the third level system as being somewhat pampered and the job of lecturer is typically seen as undemanding and even cushy.

Having said all of that, there is a perfectly valid view that the economy and the society are best served by ensuring that all its citizens acquire a good basic education even if it is simply to the level of basic literacy and numeracy. There is a genuine discussion to be had here but such a discussion will only be worthwhile if there is a recognition by all participants that choices do have to be made and total  spending on education just cannot increase indefinitely.

If we want to deal with the third level funding problem, we need to do so in a realistic way. Demanding more funding from the State will get us nowhere. But there is only so much income we can generate from Indian, Chinese and Brazilian students and from research grants and spin-offs. Indeed, it is interesting to note that 2013 saw the first decline in foreign students in the UK since records began. That particularly gravy train might well be coming to a conclusion. The issue of student fees is of course always simmering below the surface but I suspect it will stay there. There are no votes in introducing fees.

The key problem is that the third level sector is growing at an unsustainable rate. We need to take the heat out of the system. And to do this, we need to create a far more flexible third level system. It is interesting that in the 2003-2012 period the total number of students in part-time third-level study remained essentially static; there are a mere 87 more part-time students in 2012 as compared to 2003! So much for the ‘flexible learning’ rhetoric.

In an attempt to explain the increase in third level student numbers, many commentators, especially those based in the UK, have focused on the proliferation of somewhat dubious third level programs with particular scorn reserved for ‘media studies’ and the like. However, one of the problems I see is that nearly all advanced education and training has been subsumed – at least in large part – into the third level sector. Many white-collar jobs and professions used to be based on an apprenticeship model of education – education was essentially done on a part-time basis. Solicitors, barristers, nurses, accountants, actuaries and probably others were all educated in this way. Medical doctors continue to receive a large part of their professional education this way. There is no reason why this approach could not be re-imagined and extended to many other jobs and professions, especially in the area of IT and even business. Would it not be better, for example, for 18 year-olds to develop their coding skills ‘on the job’ – perhaps in partnership with universities? The success of the CoderDojo movement shows how very young minds often excel at coding and it is worth considering whether it is good practice to divert talented youngsters into four years of college when they could be learning state-of-the-art programming on the job. The current numbers studying computer science at third level are nowhere near what is needed to support the growing IT sector and this will not change significantly no matter how much ‘marketing’ is done. Perhaps the attraction of a paid apprenticeship would entice more youngsters into these areas. But would the IT industries be willing to shoulder the cost burden?

What we need is a much more equal partnership between industry/business and the State and a fairer distribution of the workload and associated costs. It is ironic that when the prevailing paradigm is one of ‘small government’, many companies and professions expect the state to do much of the heavy lifting for them. In effect, the commercial sector has developed a dependency culture of its own.  It now suits business and industry to recruit talented graduates who have, for example, gained exemptions from often highly-specialised professional examinations by virtue of their undergraduate education – examinations that would otherwise have been an added cost to the employers. Of course, not all of the blame can be placed on the commercial world; too many university programs are developed because they represent an opportunity for the university; they are a ‘sure-thing’, coming with a guarantee of high numbers of high quality applicants. Whether the new program makes sense in the context of the overall education system or the economy is not considered. For example, if an institution decides to set up a degree in actuarial maths, that course is almost guaranteed to be oversubscribed. But is the State then not just providing a highly specific service to the insurance and related industries – a service it doesn’t really have to provide and didn’t provide for many years before the third level ‘bug’ took hold?

The education and commercial worlds need to have a dialogue about the role of the third level sector in the economy and about how it can be made sustainable. But the State has to fight its corner. The education system has to support the economy – that is in everyone’s interests – but more must be demanded from the business and industrial worlds.

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About Greg Foley

A lecturer in Biotechnology in Dublin City University for more than 25 years. Trained as a Chemical Engineer in UCD (BE and PhD) and Cornell (MS). Does research on analysis and design of membrane filtration systems.
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