C.H.I.U. expressed grave disappointment at what it described as a crude and unsophisticated Estimates’ process which at its heart shattered coherent strategic economic planning by the Government.
C.H.I.U. said that the process had resulted in the Minister for Education and Science being backed into a corner where, within the narrow confines of an “educational envelope”, he felt that he had no alternative but to inflict disastrous cuts on the higher education and research areas. The cuts were imposed despite the fact that higher education and research are recognised by informed commentators as areas of key strategic importance to the future of the country.
The World Bank in its recent report “Constructing Knowledge Societies – New Challenges for Tertiary Education” gives a modern view of the importance of higher education where it states as follows:-
“Tertiary education institutes have a critical role in supporting knowledge-driven economic growth strategies and the construction of democratic, socially cohesive societies”.
“…academic and research activities provide crucial support for the national innovation system”.
“…the norms, values, attitudes and ethics that tertiary institutions impart to students are the foundation of the social capital necessary for constructing healthy civil societies and cohesive cultures – the very bedrock of good governance and democratic political systems”.
“Tertiary education is more than the capstone of the traditional education pyramid; it is a critical pillar of human development worldwide”.
C.H.I.U. notes from the Terms of Reference of the Independent Estimates Review Committee that it was to focus on “the policies and programmes of relatively low priority identified by each Minister/Department”. The result is that the more populist and politically sensitive areas of education were given higher priority while the Government failed to protect critical factors on which current industrial development strategies are based. The IDA and Enterprise Ireland see the development of world class research facilities and communities in Ireland, and a constant supply of top quality graduates, as vital to our future economic prosperity. The Government did not seem to be aware that by cutting back on higher education and research investment it was severely undermining these agencies.
The University Heads said that the Independent Estimates Review Committee was wholly inconsistent in failing to prioritise investment in research within the Education Vote, while according priority status to research in the Enterprise Trade and Employment Vote. C.H.I.U. contends that the same rationale for prioritising research in one Department should be applied equally in the other, particularly, when the research programmes were inter-dependent in meeting Government economic development goals. SFI programmes were dependent on buildings and equipment funded under the PRTL programmes, the funding for which has been slashed. There was no evidence of policy coherence in the Government’s approach. This treatment of university research was also evidence of an outdated economic view which regarded education as social infrastructure not as productive capital.
The Independent Estimates Review Committee says that it took account of the need for continued productive infrastructural development. By their treatment of the relevant funding provisions, the Review Committee and the Government had given the clear message that they regard investment in university higher education and research as unproductive. This must be music to the ears of our competitor countries who are busily building their own intellectual infrastructure to seize lead positions in the highly competitive knowledge-based global economy.
It is entirely ironic that at a time when the Irish Government is being lauded and quoted at international gatherings for its NDP investment programme in research and higher education, and its strategic effort to achieve competitive advantage in the global knowledge based economy, that the Government decided to put the brakes on the programme. When opportunities to invest in research are let slip they cannot be retrieved. The Independent Estimates Review Committee was required to take account of issues affecting the competitiveness of the economy. In considering university education and research, it clearly took an out-moded, short-term view.
Scholarship, research and international reputation are all dependant on careful, thorough and sustained investment. The present financial cuts have the potential to shatter confidence, at home and abroad, and dangerously undermine the gains made in recent years. If not addressed, the eco-system of higher education and a knowledge economy will be destabilised and the graduates and research students of our universities may well, once again, be forced to seek career opportunities outside of Ireland. C.H.I.U. calls on the Government to work in partnership with the Universities to find creative ways forward to maintain momentum in the research investment programme required to underpin the country’s economic and social development.
C.H.I.U. notes that the Expenditure Review Committee considered: “the possibility of an embargo on recruitment but felt that this would be too crude a policy instrument”. However, as a result of the Review Committee’s work, universities will in effect have to implement such an embargo and consequently it will not be possible to maintain the quality of service provided by the universities. To state it in stark and simple terms, to meet a projected shortfall of 6% across the sector could mean the loss of 440 full-time jobs and many more part-time jobs. The level of underfunding of the universities, is such that it has put at risk their high priority access programmes. The fact that universities are already well into the 2002/03 academic year limits the scope for cutbacks and large deficits are inevitable in 2003, potentially of the order of €36m.
Dr. Cosgrove, C.H.I.U. Chairman, said that in light of the Expenditure Review Body’s proposal to increase the annual €670 payment charged to third level students to €1,000, it was time to drop the pretense of describing the payment as a “student services charge” and to call it what it is – a “fee”. He said that in any event it would take an increased fee of €1,400 not €1,000 to maintain current level and quality of services. It was now time for a fundamental review of how universities should be funded. He added that the Government’s decision in 1995/96 to pay the fees of all undergraduate students had resulted in totally inadequate investment by the State in universities. As a consequence of the diversion of state funding to fees payment, student:lecturer ratios and university funding levels were among the worst in the OECD. The Government itself had finally acknowledged the infrastructural deficit in universities by committing to the physical renewal of university campuses in its Programme for Government only to about-turn in the Estimates.
Dr. Cosgrove regretted that the progress made towards producing graduates of the high international quality required for future economic and social development, has been dealt a serious blow by the Government cutbacks. The inevitable deterioration in quality resulting from the cutbacks would severely damage the Government’s aspirations to attract and embed knowledge-based industries and services in Ireland.