Universities demand more funds and more freedom

Ireland’s seven universities have published a commitment to a charter to grow and develop university education, “transform performance” in higher education and make the system “sustainable and competitive”.

The aim is to enable the Irish education system to become “the best in Europe by 2026”, in line with the government’s ambition.

But the charter spells out that this will require “substantial change” and significantly more investment in higher education and research, and the government will need to loosen its “rigid control” over universities’ staffing. Otherwise attempts to achieve the 2026 goal will be “seriously hampered”.

The ‘Charter for a Sustainable Irish University System’, the first of its kind in Ireland, was initiated by the Irish Universities Association and launched on 16 September in Dublin.

“High quality third-level education is a cornerstone of international competitiveness. Maintaining and enhancing the quality of Irish graduates across all disciplines requires substantial ongoing change and a significant increase in funding for Ireland’s universities. Without such investment, there is a clear and growing risk to the country’s competitiveness,” the charter says.

In what amounts to a demand to reverse years of falling funding, cost cutting and restrictions on hiring staff, it spells out the need to create a more flexible, autonomous and nimble structure to enable universities to deliver on their full potential as centres of creativity, learning and research and as key producers of top talent for the workforce.

“We need to remove unnecessary barriers that hinder universities’ capacity to grow and compete internationally. We need to support and incentivise universities to respond to the rapid changes in how students learn, how education is delivered and to build a fit-for-purpose university system for the next generation,” it says.

“These changes must be coupled with the necessary level of investment if the goals set by government are to be realistically achieved. There is an urgency about those investment decisions given the decade-long legacy of under-funding and the surge in student numbers that is now underway.”

Over a decade, the overall spend on higher education has been reduced by close to 40% during a period when student numbers grew by close to 30%. The European University Association (EUA) Public Funding Observatory has classified the Irish university system as being “in aggravating decline” or a “system in danger”, the charter report notes.

Professor Patrick O’Shea, president of University College Cork and chair of the Irish Universities Association, said the charter was important because it underpins a commitment to substantial change and the government must now meet the challenge.

“Ireland has long extolled the virtue of our indigenous talent, nurtured by our education system. However, a decade of under-investment by the state, the demographic bulge and a dynamic, competitive international education environment forces us all to confront stark realities,” he said.

“It is incumbent on the state, on universities and on society to implement initiatives to develop and fully realise our national talent. The time for talking is over. The time for change has come.”

The charter sets out six core commitments by Irish universities.

Improving student experience

The first is to improve the quality of the student experience in the digital age. With the student population expected to surge by 25,000 by 2030, this is a period when there will be rapid advances in digital learning and a need to expand lifelong learning opportunities.

The universities have pledged to develop a national programme in digital learning in partnership with the government; raise the share of people aged 25 to 64 engaged in lifelong learning from 6.5% to the EU average of 10.7% by 2030; and increase international student numbers to 15% of the overall student population and enable 20% of students to undertake study or placement abroad by 2025.

The report says this would require investment to refurbish decaying infrastructure, build capacity and provide the systems needed for an “increasingly digital and flexible learning environment”.

Increase scale and scope of R&D investment

The second commitment is to address the relatively low level of sustained public investment in research and development (R&D), where Ireland lags behind the OECD average of 2.5% of gross domestic product (GDP), spending less than half of that, at 1.2% of GDP.

The commitment is to expand engagement between universities and industry on knowledge transfer and innovation; and increase the output of PhD graduates by at least 30% over the next 10 years.

The report says growing R&D investment to at least 2% of GDP would require an investment of €680 million (US$793 million) per year and that securing additional European Union funds from the Horizon Europe research programme should be a core government priority.

Expand access and engage with the wider world

The universities aim to build on the success of the Disability Access Route to Education programme, which has resulted in a 70% increase in new entrants with disabilities, and the Higher Education Access Route programme, which has raised the number of students from priority socio-economic target groups by 31%.

They also want to build on the success of the Campus Engage network, which was set up by the seven universities and the Dublin Institute of Technology to promote community and civic engagement as a core function of higher education.

This involves knowledge-based collaboration between universities and the wider community, through community-campus partnerships including the activities of community-based learning, community-engaged research, volunteering, community or economic regeneration, capacity-building, and access or widening participation.

The particular commitments in this area include raising access by 30% by 2025; providing better opportunities for students to work with civic society organisations through accredited learning, growth in “engaged research” and promotion of; and strengthening and deepening industry links to align with workforce demands and build more partnerships.

Support staff development and increase diversity

Universities say their capacity to respond flexibly to rapidly changing staff needs is restricted due to university staff numbers and pay scales being controlled by central government.

All seven Irish universities have, however, now been awarded Athena SWAN Bronze status, a key indicator of progress on equality and diversity.

To build on this, universities commit in the charter to implementing a professional development framework for university staff and implementing the recommendations of the Gender Equality Taskforce on Higher Education to advance diversity, inclusion and equality. They will also secure agreement on a Researcher Career Development and Employment Framework to provide a secure basis for researchers to develop a career path.

But they are also seeking an end to the “rigid and centralised control on university staffing” to allow greater flexibility for each university to develop bespoke staffing plans.

More flexible and accountable structures

The charter report says international evidence shows that the most successful universities are those with the greatest levels of autonomy, coupled with strong governance and accountability.

The universities are looking to work with government to reform higher education to create a “more flexible operating structure, with a better capacity to respond to the needs of the economy and society in general”.

They commit to improving accountability through better governance structures, in accordance with best international practice.

Increase investment and resources

The report laments delays in the government’s long-awaited policy decisions on revamping the overall structure of funding, while noting that it has begun to reverse the decline in funding. The report says a final decision on a sustainable funding model for higher education is urgently needed to prevent “risks to our economic competitiveness”.

The universities say a more sustainable university system can be delivered by increasing state investment in higher education in each of the next three budgets by respectively €150 million, €180 million and €230 million. They also say a more detailed plan for capital investment in higher education is required and should include a dedicated refurbishment programme.

Jim Miley, director general of the Irish Universities Association, speaking at the launch, said: “Universities worldwide are transforming and the charter to which we have committed today is designed to move Irish universities to the forefront of that change by jointly committing to a range of measures that better support students, staff and research and that will deliver in the national interest.”

O’Shea said the charter calls out the challenges, identifies solutions and puts meat on the bones of the government’s 2026 ambition.

“As a society, we must commit to and enable this change. This charter captures our commitment and it is now incumbent on the government to meet the challenge.”

* On 14 September the government announced a near trebling of the higher education sector capital budget compared to the past decade, up from €0.8 billion to €2.2 billion, which Minister of State for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor described as a “step change for state capital investment in higher education” that would help cater for a projected 20% increase in university student numbers by 2029.