At a meeting held to-day (17th December 2003) between the Heads of Universities and the Minister for Education and Science, Noel Dempsey TD, the Chairman of C.H.I.U. (Conference of Heads of Irish Universities), Dr. Seamus Smyth outlined the serious damage that the failure of the Minister’s estimates to allow for benchmarking was causing to the sector.
The Heads were dismayed to learn from the Minister that his main justification for the cuts was an alleged lack of information regarding the sector. I find this explanation hard to accept given the level of scrutiny of the sector by the Higher Education Authority and the openness of the sector to providing information, Dr Smyth said.
Dr. John Hegarty, TCD, said that he was very concerned that what were fundamental funding decisions affecting the future development of the universities and their contribution to the knowledge society were prompted or guided by misconceptions about the universities and their operations.
Dr. Smyth added that the implications of the funding cuts were so serious as to pre-empt the work of the OECD Review of Irish Higher Education. Decisions with far-reaching policy impact should be informed by objective and professional analysis of the sector. What gave me greatest cause for concern was the admission by the Minister that the decision to cut university funding was not made on the advice of his officials but rather on his own view of what were the priorities for the education sector, Dr. Smyth said.
It is clear that the decision was made without due regard for the requirements of the Higher Education Sector. On the eve of the publication of the 2004 Estimates the Minister himself made the following statement in the Dail; The challenges of maintaining quality, responsiveness and competitiveness in higher education are a major priority against the background of unprecedented levels of expansion, change and diversification in the sector in Ireland.
Given this statement and the clear commitment of the Government to creating a world class research, development and innovation capacity in Ireland, there is now a fundamental gap between the priorities of the Minister for Education and Science and the aspirations of the Government as a whole, Dr. Smyth said.
The Heads have agreed to engage with the Minister in the New Year to address these serious issues so that the future funding of Irish universities can be placed on a sustainable and realistic footing, Dr Smyth concluded.
Mr. Michael McGrath, C.H.I.U.
Mr. Tim Collins, Drury Communications