The Estimates 2005 provision for universities has to be viewed in the context of cumulative cuts of 14.5% in core state funding of universities over 2003 and 2004. Anything less than a 9.5% increase in university funding for 2005 is tantamount to a further cut. The impact of the 2005 provision will be further cutbacks in quantity and quality of services and deficits incurred by the universities. The degradation of services will worsen Irish universities already mediocre international standing and competitiveness.
Perceptions, publicly expressed by politicians, that universities had cash stashed away and could bear funding cuts have been unequivocally rubbished by a review of the financial situation of universities by independent experts commissioned by the Higher Education Authority. The Report – “The Financial Position of Irish Universities” found that universities were badly under-funded and had insufficient reserves, a finding that supports the conclusions of the OECD Review of Higher Education in Ireland. The OECD Report advocated a quantum increase in investment in universities, part of which should come from the payment of fees by students. In response the Government has said that the reintroduction of fee payment by students, which would produce a 22% increase in funding for universities, is off the political agenda and now seems intent on effectively cutting university funding for the third year in a row.
C.H.I.U. acknowledges that Minister Hanafin is convinced of the need for increased strategic investment in universities as advocated by the OECD. Indeed the Taoiseach himself in his meeting with C.H.I.U. in July 2004, emphasised the importance that he and his government attached to the OECD Review of Higher Education. He saw it as a means of clarifying the reforms and investment that were needed in higher education to meet government objectives. However, the critical significance of the OECD Reports recommendation to the country’s future development does not seem to have penetrated the rather blinkered expenditure- control mindset that drove the Estimates 2005 process.
The one-dimensional, book keeping “envelope” approach reveals a hopeless failure at a central government level to ensure that provision is made for the strategic investment required to achieve the government’s objective of Ireland as a knowledge economy.
The OECD and the Enterprise Strategy Group have pointed the way forward but it is clear that in the Estimates process Minister Hanafin has not been supported by Minister for Finance and her other government colleagues in her quest for the funding required to deliver the reformed world class higher education system on which Ireland’s future prosperity depends.
The Minister for Education and Science and the university system and ultimately the country’s future have been short changed in the Estimates and it is imperative that the investment situation is rectified in the Budget.