Funding higher education: asking the wrong question

The entire focus of the recent debate on the funding of HE has been on the precise way in which extra cash can be raised to deal with the obvious shortfall that currently exists. No attempt has been made to look at the cost side.

We need to ask the simple question how can the cost (to the taxpayer)  of third level education be reduced?

I suggest there are quite a few ways in which we can do this (all views personal – as usual!):

  • Give institutions more autonomy and refrain from setting arbitrary targets or imposing conditions that actually impose a cost on the institutions. Targets, no matter what they are, always impose a cost. For example, if you demand that institutions increase their research student numbers by 30% (why?), then those institutions will have to invest in research support infrastructure that will enable academics to seek and win the necessary research grants. You cannot wave a magic wand and assume that by setting a target and then exhorting academics to try harder, targets will be achieved.
  • The TU project is another instance of Government effectively setting a target that imposes a cost on institutions. The very act of merging institutions imposes a significant initial cost and an ongoing cost associated with administering an institution that might have campuses that are hours part. The proposed CIT-Tralee merger is an obvious case in point. This is all against a background where we know that the cost per student in a university is about 30% more than in an IoT. While some might argue that mergers will lead to a reduction in duplication, the effect of eliminating courses in some institutions will be to add to the burden on families who will have to fund the costs of travel and accommodation.
  • Accept that the primary function of all HE institutions is education. Demanding that institutions be drivers of economic growth, both regional and national, through the generation of intellectual property, start-ups etc., also adds additional overhead costs for institutions. In effect, costs that should be associated with job creation and economic development are lumped into the education budget when in fact they belong in the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation. We see the same thing in the broad area of health where the HSE carries out many functions that are more to do with social work than health per se.
  • Taxpayer-funded HE institutions, but especially the universities, need to get out of the business of running degree courses where the primary purpose of the programme is to provide quite specific workplace skills rather than education in a broader sense. Programmes like these are better done, using an apprenticeship model, by the private sector but perhaps in partnership with institutions. This is a model that worked well in the past but the institutions took it upon themselves to take on the cost of training everybody from computer programmers to accountants to actuaries to solicitors to health professionals of all kinds. We chose in the 1990s to fix a system that wasn’t broken.
  • The number of total student-years in the system has increased enormously because the four-year honours degree has become the dominant form of higher education. We need to at least examine this trend and ask is it really necessary that so many of our students spend four years in college or 18 years total in full time education. Some numbers on this: In March 2008, there were 38K applications for Level 6/7 CAO courses with 56K for Level 8 courses. In 2016, the figures were 34K and 65K. The trend is clear.
  • We need to seriously, once and for all, tap into the opportunities that online learning present. But there is no point in all institutions charging off and doing their own thing. Developing high quality online learning tools and environments is difficult, costly and time consuming. We need a national approach and we need to create a single institution whose sole mission would be to provide online undergraduate education in partnership with existing institutions.

In conclusion, our HE institutions need to become leaner with a renewed focus on their educational mission. At the moment we are trying to be too many things all at once. That’s my opinion anyway!


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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One Response to Funding higher education: asking the wrong question

  1. Pingback: Ninth Level Ireland » Blog Archive » Funding higher education: asking the wrong question

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