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knowledge, they have concentrated an unwise
degree on this idea of R&D that can deliver
jobs. And in the current economic climate,
when people want to hear that, they’re saying
it more and more. There is a frustration that
the teaching part of what we do has been
downgraded to second place behind the
research part.”
The government’s austerity measures have
forced universities to cut their faculties by six
percent since 2008, and there is a freeze on
hiring. This despite the fact that enrollment
is up 20 percent from a decade ago, thanks
largely to immigration. It’s another familiar
theme, but one that’s new in Ireland, which
had no real history of immigration until
the Celtic Tiger years, when immigrants
flocked here to fill low-paying service-sector
jobs. Their children often attend poor urban
secondary schools and don’t speak English
as their native language. Fifteen-year-olds in
then-homogeneous Ireland ranked fifth in
literacy as recently as 2000, according to the
Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development,
well above the OECD average. Now, with immigrants
comprising eight percent of the school-age population,
Ireland has plummeted to 17th.
When they arrive at Irish universities, these
underprepared students put even more pressure on a
shrinking faculty, said Andreas Hess, a senior lecturer in
sociology at UCD. “We’re all happy to take on more students.
Everybody would be happy for a better-educated workforce,”
Hess said. “But we’re not given the means to teach them.”
Other resources are also in decline. Disproportionately
dependent on the government, Irish universities have 85
percent of their costs covered by public funding, compared
to 73 percent in OECD countries on average,
65 percent in the UK, and 44 percent in the
United States. That makes them particularly
vulnerable in tough times. (Even in good
times, Ireland ties for a distant 16th among
developed countries in spending on higher
education relative to per-capita GDP, and
17th in spending per student.) Given this,
the only thing surprising about the budget
cuts for universities is that they haven’t
been worse. Funding was slashed by seven
percent, from $1.7 billion last year to $1.5
billion this year. As in America, some of that
shortfall is being made up on the backs of
students in the form of fees. Irish students
pay a “registration fee,” first imposed in
the 1980s when the country chose to make
higher education tuition free. Originally $700 a year, that
charge has gradually reached $2,100 and will rise again next
year to $2,800.
Even though some 43 percent of students come from
families whose low income excuses them from paying it,
the additional revenue from registration fees reduced the
cut to universities to 2.5 percent. Still, this comes at a time
when, according to the Hunt Report, the equivalent of a 33
percent increase would be needed just to handle the rising
enrollment.
These woes, and particularly rising student-faculty
ratios, have already taken a rapid and quantifiable toll on
the enormous progress made by Irish universities in the
last ten years. When the first of what would become the
highly regarded Shanghai Jiao Tong international university
rankings came out in 2003, only Trinity and UCD among all
Irish institutions were in the top 500, and those only barely.
The best they did in the
Times Higher Education
magazine
standings, when those were first released in 2005, was 111th
and 221st respectively. But by 2009, Trinity had shot to 43rd
and UCD to 89th, joined in the top 500 by DCU, University
College Cork, National University of Ireland Galway, NUI
Maynooth, and the University of Limerick. It took only one
year for all of this to come undone, and for Trinity to fall back
out of the top 50 with UCD gone from the top 100.
To stanch the bleeding, the presidents of all seven Irish
universities, the Hunt Report and the Fine Gael political
party all support a drastic change in higher-education
funding under which university budgets would be bulked
up not only by raising the registration fee even higher, but by
making students pay substantially more of the cost of their
educations retroactively after graduation, based on their
courses of study and their incomes—a so-called graduate
tax like the one in England. An arts graduate would have to
repay $11,200, an engineering student $22,400, and a newly
minted doctor $75,600. But after elections in March, Fine
Gael was forced to form a coalition government with Labour,
which opposed even the first step of increasing the student
registration fee beyond the current level. In a compromise,
the graduate tax was tabled “for further study,” and Labour
agreed to raise the registration fee, though not as much as
Fine Gael wanted.
Government
spending on
university research
is up, thanks
to a stubborn
conviction that new
discoveries will help
restore prosperity.
The politicians need to stop micromanaging, says Philip Nolan, incoming
president of NUI Maynooth. “If there was one thing we would ask for it’s that the
government would stop worrying about the details of how we do things.”