Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 22 February 2022
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education and Skills
Future Funding of Higher Education: Discussion
On behalf of the committee, I welcome Mr. Jim Miley, CEO of the Irish Universities Association, IUA; Dr. Joseph Ryan, CEO of the Technological Higher Education Authority, THEA; and Professor Diarmuid Hegarty, chairman of the Higher Education Colleges Association, HECA.
The witnesses are here today to discuss the future funding of higher education. The format of the meeting is that I will invite Mr. Miley to make a brief opening statement followed by Dr. Ryan and Professor Hegarty. These will be followed by questions from members of the committee. Each member has an eight-minute slot today in which to ask the question and for the witnesses to respond. As participants are probably aware, the committee will publish the opening statements to the Oireachtas website following the meeting.
Before I begin, I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses, or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him her or it identifiable or otherwise engage.
I also remind witnesses of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make that him or her identifiable, or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of a person. Therefore, if their statements are defamatory in relation to an identifiable person or entity, I will direct witnesses to discontinue their remarks and it is imperative that they comply with any such direction.
I now ask the witnesses to make their opening statements. This is the first meeting of a new module of work that we are looking at today. We will have a number of witnesses appearing before the committee over the next number of weeks. We are discussing a very important issue.
I will now hand over to Mr. Miley followed by Dr. Ryan and Professor Hegarty.
Mr. Jim Miley:
I thank the Chairman and members of the committee for the opportunity to meet with them today on this important issue. We have supplied the committee with a detailed submission so I will keep my comments to the main points. Our universities have clearly shown their value to the country and to society in the response to Covid-19 over the past couple of years. The value of our skills and research was never more relevant to the lives of our people. As we now seek to recover from the pandemic, our universities have an equally important role to play.
High-skilled jobs, centred on talent and innovation, will underpin our future economic, social and cultural development. As a nation, we face a range of challenges in the areas of climate change, housing, healthcare and social services and balanced regional development. The higher education and research system will provide the bedrock of talent and innovation to meet those challenges. The need for a sustainable funding model for the sector, repeatedly emphasised by this committee, must now be delivered if the potential of the sector is to be fully realised.
There is now universal acceptance of the need to increase higher education funding. The long-awaited Government response to the future funding of higher education, which we are told will soon be revealed, must be ambitious and sustainable and reflect the realities of the current challenges facing the sector. Access to higher education has been a particular success story in Ireland, as members are aware, with the proportion of people between 25 and 34 with a third level qualification at around 60%, which is well above the EU average. However, investment in higher education continues to lag behind our competitors, with total public expenditure on tertiary education as a proportion of GDP, or GNI* in the case of Ireland, at 0.6% as opposed to an OECD and EU 22 average of 1%. This puts Ireland joint second last in OECD league tables.
Public investment in research also lags behind that in key competitor countries. The government budget allocation on research and development, GBARD, is 0.92% of total Government expenditure by comparison with the EU average of 1.43%. Again, we are way behind many other small countries, such as Norway, Denmark and Estonia, some of which have a GBARD close to 2%. We need a 50% increase in GBARD just to grow to the average.
On future funding needs, the investment required in our higher education sector was clearly set out in the 2016 Cassells report. It called for additional annual core funding of €600 million by 2021 and €1 billion by 2030, a capital investment programme of €5.5 billion over 15 years and an additional €100 million per year in student-support funding. The report also stressed the need to front-load investment in the first three to five years. The actual increase in State recurrent grant funding in real terms in 2021 amounted to €121 million, considerably less than the €600 million per annum identified by Cassells. The employer levy is generating additional annual investment through the National Training Fund of €190 million over 2017 levels. It is clear, therefore, the additional funding of the sector in recent years has been provided to a significant extent by employers. The State investment to date is only a fraction of that recommended in the Cassells report.
The IUA proposes an investment programme for the sector totalling €418 million in additional recurrent funding and €490 million in capital expenditure. Our proposals, spelt out in detail in our submission to the committee, provide for a number of measures, including a decisive lift in core funding to support our students, address quality-related issues, and widen access and participation. Increased SUSI grant supports must be part of the package. Further measures include sustained investment in talent and skills as the lifeblood of the economy and investment to support lifelong learning, which is critical. Investment in innovation and research to prepare Irish society for the challenges ahead and to enable us to compete internationally is another key component. The continued expansion of access programmes to give a fair chance to disadvantaged students and ensure no student is penalised because of his or postcode at birth is critical. Investment to support universities in harnessing opportunities to develop international partnerships and enhanced mobility for students comprise a further key priority.
Much of the reinvestment in the sector since 2016 has been absorbed by standstill requirements, such as costs for national pay agreements and additional student places, in respect of which there has been tremendous growth over the past two years, in particular. However, standing still is no longer good enough if we are serious about the future talent and innovation needs of the country.
Our research-intensive universities, which we represent, will comprise a key partner in addressing the major societal and economic challenges we will face over the coming decades. We can and will deliver the talent pipeline for a knowledge-intensive and high skills economy and the research and innovation to underpin economic and social development. We can do this only if we are adequately funded on a sustainable basis.
Dr. Joseph Ryan:
On behalf of the Technological Higher Education Authority, THEA, I appreciate this opportunity to discuss future funding. I commend and refer members to our written submission. This is the critical conversation. An agreed sustainable funding approach is the essential prerequisite for a healthy system of higher education. The Minister, Deputy Harris, has signalled openness to a reduction in the student contribution. Members will recall that THEA advised against any increase and argued against the introduction of student loans. This was on the grounds of sustainability but also because our experience was the contribution was proving a barrier to access for individuals and families. However, in introducing this topic, the Minister has signalled the opening to the future funding debate. With the student contribution capped or even reduced, and the employer contribution having reached the 1% and realising a billion in available funding, the only advance can be in the direct Exchequer investment in higher education. This points to prioritisation.
Ireland has many assets: we are well located and anglophone, enjoy a temperate climate and have a stable democracy. However, our greatest asset and native genius lie in our people. Investing in human capital is critical to our well-being, culture and future prosperity. As the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, stated recently, "Our further and higher education and research systems represent a critical national asset which can be an engine for economic growth and support the future success of our citizens."
The transformation to technological universities is the biggest educational change of our times. We have an excellent design, commendable ambition and willing and talented staff. Let us match these with necessary and sustained investment. Our system is a critical national asset. It needs to be prioritised for direct and sustained investment as this will be repaid with greater economic activity and the enhanced well-being of our citizenry.
The lack of sustainable core funding is becoming increasingly obvious in the areas of research and innovation, where time-limited capacity-building funding is being used to support initiatives that would more sustainably be funded from core. THEA has repeatedly stated the research and innovation allocation through the recurrent grant must increase initially to 5% of the total, as was recommended by the Higher Education Authority in 2017, rising to the 10% allocation, as is the case in the traditional universities. The recent announcement on a capital programme of €450 million over four years is welcome. It comprehends both further education and training and higher education, and we advocate continuing this investment.
The increase in student numbers is creating an unprecedented demand for suitable, affordable student accommodation, which has been exacerbated by the wider societal housing needs. Technological universities have long sought access to the borrowing framework. The investment metrics have changed and direct Government investment and reform of the cost rental model is required.
A further challenge relates to the lessons from Covid-19. Students appreciated flexibility and online access to lectures. The NextGenerationEU package and our resulting national recovery and resilience plan emphasise the power of the latest digital and online technologies. This digitisation challenge has been a consistent feature of recent THEA budget submissions. Covid has highlighted inequalities in terms of housing, income and cultural capital. Students shouldered more than a fair share of the impact. Considerable support was furnished by the Government and is acknowledged. The lesson is we need to build additional capacity and resilience in our caring services with a view to providing more comprehensive and equitable support for learners.
The deprivation index scores published last week by the Higher Education Authority, HEA, provide a rich data set that should be mined to inform policymaking and targeted investment. This is revealing about the character and added value of the technological sector. The overall score for our member institutions is 1.3 compared with a national average of 2. THEA member institutions represent eight of the 11 higher education institutions, with the highest proportion of students from disadvantaged areas. The data also show our institutions have a distinctively local geographic footprint in respect of student profiles, serve their regional and local communities and provide access to higher education to some of the country's most socioeconomically disadvantaged areas. This has consequences for pedagogy and both learning and pastoral supports and needs to be reflected in the funding model.
In any given academic year, up to half of all first-year entrants will have gained a place on a basis other than leaving certificate attainment. Our advanced entry agreements with the further education and training sector maximise the potential of those entry routes for students. In 2020-2021, 25% of students from institutions represented by THEA were enrolled part time by comparison with 17% elsewhere. Some 12% of students are registered as remote by comparison with 3% in other institutions. Students facing particular challenges frequently benefit from supplementary teaching and learning support or additional time.
The total number of students enrolled in THEA member institutions increased by 23.7% from 2014-2015 to 2020-2021 by comparison with an increase of 15.6% elsewhere. Data available to the Department show that, despite our focus on small group teaching and focused support for students with lower prior attainment, the student–staff ratio in these institutions has, for more than a decade, been significantly higher than elsewhere. Notwithstanding, the most recent analysis of completion rates demonstrates a comparative success.
We advocate increased direct Exchequer investment commensurate with the ambitions for the system. We believe the current funding model does not adequately address the diversity of needs. There is insufficient weighting for student access and no weighting for the smaller student groups that our pedagogical model employs.
We believe the current funding model does not adequately address the diversity of needs. There is insufficient weighting for student access and no weighting for the smaller student groups our pedagogical model employs. Technological universities do not enjoy well established pipelines of philanthropy and alumni support. At a time, therefore, when higher education is under major financial pressure the impact on technological TUs is comparatively greater and in this formative stage they require targeted support to deliver on balanced economic and regional development and access to education for all.
Professor Diarmuid Hegarty:
On behalf of the Higher Education Colleges Association, HECA, I thank the committee for inviting us to make this submission. Future funding models must change to include all students, public and private, and must promote accessibility and progression. HECA is proposing several ways in which funding should follow the student. The committee should reiterate its predecessor committee's recommendations, which were made four years ago, that student supports be extended to private higher education institute, HEI, students. This should include the Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, disability, student assistant fund, Gaeltacht, mental health and well-being, digital and the disability access route to education, DARE, and higher education access route, HEAR, supports and be extended to part-time and blended programmes. We propose that ring-fenced quotas for delivering equality of opportunity in schools, DEIS, students in high-demand programmes should be introduced to guarantee them minimum numbers of positions. Resources should target increasing learner participation from disadvantaged areas in all third-level pathways. We stress that the committee should be mindful the participation rate in third level in Dublin 10 is 16% whereas in Dublin 6 it is 99%.
Published data show private sector average costs of €6,500, yielding average savings of €2,500 to €3,500 per student per annum, indicate that if the argument is that money is not available, then cost economies should be availed of in the private sector. That was the argument made against this committee’s recommendation to the Civil Service, which said no money was available. That is despite an amazing miracle where €250 per student was found during Covid-19, which shows money can be found if the will is there.
The resources of private higher education should also be harnessed to address the increasing demographic and national skills challenges, which is already happening to some extent with Springboard, and to widen participation and lifelong learning. Some governments utilise private HEIs to address national demands, for instance, Poland, Hungary, Spain and Japan. Springboard has presented the successful precedent of providing thousands of students from all sections of society with Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, validated qualifications in skills areas to underpin Ireland’s economic development. HECA providers have the physical and teaching capacity to ramp up provision to 57,000 places, if need be, on their programmes that are validated. Given the skills shortage imperative, obstacles blocking the inclusion of private HEI representation at the National Skills Council and its regional skills fora should be removed.
In my view, random selection is an obscenity and should be eliminated. That could be done by increasing places available to meet the demand for high points courses at the margin where random selection is necessitated. Alternatively, randomly excluded students should be fully funded to study abroad and, in the long term, alternative private and public pathways should be funded to rid us of this obscenity.
Alternative pathways need to be supported by Government funding. In certain instances this is happening, for example, with apprenticeships and traineeships, foundation courses, community further education and higher education colleges, but these should include transition to private institutions and would be more effective if that were the case. Part-time, blended and online methods of attaining qualifications need to be considered. Coherent stacking of micro-credentials should be considered. Academic thinking is open to that.
The national forum for teaching and learning, effectively funding for continuing professional development, CPD, to support staff should be extended to private institutions. We need to greatly expand a new generation of apprenticeships. We need most of all to change the attitudes to apprenticeship funding. We need a promotional campaign highlighting the career achievement of top-level people who started life as apprentices. For instance, I do not think many people present will be aware that Peter Drucker started his life as an apprentice. There are many such examples. I will give an outstanding example in Ireland of a person who is alive and working - Ralf Brandstätter, the CEO of Volkswagen cars, who started life as an apprentice. There are many more who started out as apprentices. We need to get that message out. Parents need to recognise an apprenticeship is a very effective way of starting one's career.
On research and investment, we think the obstacles to private colleges being involved in research tenders should be removed. I acknowledge we need to do more research.
We recognise that the question of loans is politically toxic but the reality is that families and students are increasingly relying on expensive commercial loans to attend higher education. We propose a not-for-profit student loan company should be established to support students attending HEIs. This would not be a substitute for fees and current supports but would be additional in assisting access for people who are already very hard-pressed.
The European fund for strategic investment skills and education aims to offer financing options through financial intermediaries to be made available to students who meet its criteria. We think this is a distinct possibility and should the committee favour this, we would be happy to develop the proposal further. It is an opportunity for students to get funding. It is important that it would be done through a not-for-profit means. It should not be used to increased the profit of financial institutions.
I wish to briefly refer to funding of protection for learners. At present, learners in private HEIs have the benefit of a learner protection scheme. Academic bonding is a scheme that enables a student to transfer to another institution and complete his or her study in that other institution in the event of discontinuance of the course where the student started it originally. HECA is concerned the members' predecessor committee was informed that “academic bonding has not been achievable by providers” when discussed in the 2019 Act. At that time, the HECA academic bonding scheme was in operation in its third academic year. It provides support for students through an arrangement whereby each college is backed by two protecting colleges in order that students can transfer to one of two protecting colleges. Furthermore, there is a system in operation whereby the colleges are required to prepared action plans to cover the contingency of discontinuance. All of this is backed by a fund that now amounts to €4 million. The system is working. If it is not broke, why fix it? There is a proposal for an Irish scheme. I stress this arrangement is overseen by an oversight committee chaired by an eminent past president of a public sector HEI. Cathaoirleach agus baill an choiste, go raibh mile maith agaibh.
It is appropriate at the start to welcome the appointment of Dr. Paddy Prendergast, a former chair of the Irish Universities Association, IUA, in his capacity as chair of the new south-east technological university body. The Chairman and Senator Ó Cathasaigh will also welcome his appointment. I am sure Dr. Prendergast's experience will be of enormous benefit. We should record that appointment.
I thank the witnesses very much, but in a general context dare I say, "Tell us something we do not know". We have known for quite a long period that there has been a crisis in higher education funding. We do not need any more reports. We are coming up to the sixth anniversary of the publication of the Cassells report. The Minister had indicated that 2021 would be the year that this issue would be addressed. I will put a number of questions and each of the speakers might respond.
The Covid-19 pandemic would have had significant impact on non-Exchequer income in all of the institutions. Can the witnesses quantify that? Obviously, significant additional places were provided to deal with some of the challenges presented by the leaving certificate, which had its own costs, but perhaps some of that direct impact could be quantified. Given that some of the universities are borrowed to the hilt, the scope for borrowing is going to be limited to address some of the initial concerns. The witnesses might also be able to touch on that.
I agree with Professor Hegarty's point about micro-credentialism, while Mr. Miley made the point about sustained investment in talent. Ireland is experiencing rapid technological change and it will be up to the higher and further education institutions to upskill and reskill all of our citizens. That has costs. Who is going to pay for those micro-credentials?
The core issue here is funding. The witnesses will be aware that the Minister has recently announced that he is considering a reduction in the student registration fee. The proposed reduction is welcome but it must be very clear that this cannot happen unless the funding shortfall is replaced. It will be extremely short-sighted if the overall package is not put in place. If he was to proceed with a cut in the student registration fee of €1,000 without necessarily replacing the full amount that would be derived from those sources, what would be the likely impacts on institutions? I am not just talking about cost terms; I am referring to the levels of service that would be made available to students. There is a process regarding SUSI reform, and if there is time the witnesses might focus on that. There is probably enough however in those initial questions, which I hope get to the meat of the issue.
Mr. Jim Miley:
On the question of the impact of Covid, I do not have up-to-date data, but the two main areas of pressure arose from the reduction in international student fee income and in the commercial revenues from the various activities our members are involved in, from the Book of Kells down the road from here to the Helix, and members will be aware of the various facilities that have a commercial or a part-commercial component. In the first year of the pandemic, both of those were badly hit. In the past year, international student revenue has recovered to a significant extent. It is not fully recovered but to a large extent it has. Over the past year, however, commercial revenues have not recovered at all for obvious reasons. They have been entirely closed. For some individual institutions this amounts to loss of funds in double figure millions of euro. The concern, as with all commercial event-based facilities, is that there will not be an instant recovery on that. It will be a gradual recovery and it will take some time.
The Senator mentioned borrowings. The borrowings of seven of our members that are currently enabled to borrow is currently reaching €1 billion. A number of those borrowings are locked into low exchange rates, but as is the nature of borrowings, there is a rolling renewal of loans. In the context of potential rate rises and an inflationary environment, the repayment on those loans certainly will not go down and is likely to increase in the coming years. Some of our institutions are nearing the end of the borrowing capacity, which is upwards of 40% of their annual income rating. There is a risk that they will not be able to borrow further.
The last point to address is the student registration fee reduction issue. In the Oireachtas last autumn the Minister confirmed that a €1,000 reduction in the student contribution would have a net cost to the State of €81 million. That would be €250 million if the student fee was entirely eliminated. I made the point in our submission that standstill is not an option. If there is an existing black hole in the funding of the sector of some hundreds of millions of euro - and I am aware that perhaps there is an argument to be had about the full extent of that but it is some hundreds of millions of euro - and if the starting point is to increase that hole by a further €100 million with even a €1,000 reduction in the student contribution, then the position is, as the Senator has outlined, that it must be replaced by State funding. If that were not to happen then we are into significant quality issues. We already have student staff ratio issues that have risen from 20:1. The latest OECD report shows that this is now 23:1 in Ireland versus 15:1 or 16:1 across the OECD. There will be further pressure, and ultimately, the quality of what we offer to students will be diminished.
Dr. Joseph Ryan:
I thank the Senator for his questions. I will be quick-fire on the answers. I will complement what Mr. Miley has said. We did look to the national steering group, that was set up through Covid. Mr. Miley and I sat on that. We looked at the impact upon institutions of Covid. It is exactly as he said; we were looking particularly at the international and commercial hiring piece. At first, the figures looked very bad. We were talking earlier that it was stronger in the university sector than in ours, but we are certainly looking at up to €100 million of a loss.
Dr. Joseph Ryan:
Yes, the TU sector. Again, the international piece has bounced back and a lot of that has to do with the way Ireland cared for international students. It did us well on reputation there.
On the question of upskilling and reskilling, that is a big debate between the further education and training sector, FET, and higher education. There is an integration piece there. There is opportunity attaching to the new Department, which might not be caught. We are also conscious of European funding in this. We have just completed an application under the national recovery and resilience plan around upskilling and reskilling, which comes under the NextGenerationEU programme, which I mentioned in my submission.
The borrowing instrument is provided for under the Technological Universities Act 2018, as the Chairman will be aware, but it has not been activated. There is an openness to it, and that is what has been indicated. However, the reason I mention the cost-rental model in my piece is that the metrics have now changed and to make this sustainable will require Government support. That is essentially the issue for us.
The Senator asked about the impact of a reduction in the student contribution. At the moment we are looking for extra places and all of those possibilities go if the student contribution is reduced. I referred to the three-legged stool that we have always been working to, and if we take money out of one, I fully agree with the Senator that it must be replaced from elsewhere. Reference was made to the level of services that we offer students. We have seen, for example, through the pandemic the use of caring services, mental health services and so on. In fairness, the Government has been very good in coming in to support that in those one-off pieces but if we take away part of the core funding on this, these things will not be sustainable. I also agree with Mr. Miley that the big hit on this will be the quality of the system. If one loses reputation internationally in this game, it is very difficult to recover it.
I thank the witnesses. I apologise for not being present but I listened to them on my journey into Leinster House this morning. I thank them for their assessments and contributions to this debate. It is difficult to have a meaningful conversation with them in the context of a decision to be made rather than being made. I am sure they will understand this puts us at a slight disadvantage. It is welcome, however, that a statement has been made by the Minister that he intends to move in the area of student fees and the overall funding model for third level. In the absence of the Cassells report, for debate purposes it is difficult to have a meaningful conversation with the witnesses.
I very much appreciate the contribution made by my colleague, Senator Malcolm Byrne, in terms of his expertise and what he brings to the Seanad and the Houses in general. I find it beneficial to speak after him.
When we compare ourselves to other countries it is important that we compare like with like and across the board, rather than comparing educational outcomes or the number of students who are enrolled. As the witnesses outlined, we have an extraordinarily high attainment rate for third level degrees. That is a testament to the educational sector and everything our third level has done to maintain high standards. The standard of teaching is high and student attainment is extraordinarily high. From a brief reading of the statements, I cannot recall what the attainment level is in the EU, although I know a rate of 60% was mentioned here. The witnesses stated clearly that the level here is substantially higher than the EU average, which is to be noted and welcomed.
The question of core funding from the Exchequer is a subject in all of the submissions. It is very clear that we do not contribute enough, regardless of which measurement tool we use. There is, therefore, a simple Government decision to be made on whether we want to fund education to a higher level or not. The clear indication thus far is that we do. In saying that, I am concerned that if the Exchequer stumps up and reduces or holds fees at a particular level for the student, would that automatically increase funding to third level. The answer to that is "No". One does not flow from the other and two decisions must be made. Should increases be suspended or should fees be reduced by 20%, 30%, 50%, 100% or whatever the percentage may be? On the other hand, funding must be increased to compensate for that. Therein lies my questions for the witnesses. Are we comparing ourselves with our EU partners in the same way? For instance, are the overall running costs of third level here and in other jurisdictions comparable? Are they higher or lower here?
The witnesses mentioned staff ratios. They are clearly not at the same level as the ratios in some other EU member states or OECD countries, which the witnesses also cited. What is the comparative difference? Do the witnesses have those figures to hand? If they happen to have them in written format, I ask that they be provided to the secretariat because they would be very helpful in our deliberations.
The witnesses mentioned reputation, which is a critical part of this conversation. We all know and appreciate that we cannot afford to stand still. I do not think there is any disagreement across the political spectrum on the need to do more than we are doing.
I did not agree with all that Professor Hegarty said but he made a valid point about the inherent disadvantage in the system and cited Dublin 10 and Dublin 6. I can give similar figures between outer orbital towns in north County Dublin. I am not proud of that. I have been a Member of the Oireachtas and a member of a Government party for 11 years. There was not very much we could do for quite a bit of the past 11 years. However, if we park Covid for a moment, we have not faced the same financial constraints since 2018, at least in terms of the balance sheet. I am not convinced we have done enough at third level to improve outcomes for and inputs from disadvantaged communities and schools. I am not sure the playing field is entirely level.
I ecstatically welcome the inclusion of further education and training or FET in the CAO in terms of terminal examinations process for second level students. That is a fantastic step in the right direction. I am interested in hearing the views of the witnesses on what the impact of that will be in the coming years.
In the past, we could readily read the number of dropouts in third level. I am particularly concerned about the impact that Covid has had on students in the last few years. There has been a large increase in intake on the basis of the examination process or terminal exam. Have the witnesses seen the impact of that on their side in terms of the number of first-year dropout rates? What is the rate in an average year? What is the rate now given Covid? Do the witnesses have those figures assessed at this time?
Dr. Joseph Ryan:
I thank the Deputy for his questions. I thank him for his gracious comments about his colleague, Senator Malcolm Byrne, who has worked very closely with us in higher education and brings that insight, which we all very much appreciate.
The Deputy asked a fair question about the overall running costs. Both Mr. Miley, Professor Hegarty and I work very closely in European alignments and utilise the OECD, so there are benchmarking exercises. Rather than make the case here, we will supply the figures to the committee. We would make the argument that Ireland has been losing ground and we are comparing like with like. Having said that, there is an awful lot that we do well in Ireland and we should be very proud of that. The work of this committee has been hugely to the fore in supporting that and we very much appreciate that.
We should consider the ratios in 2007, before the downturn happened, and then look at the costing. It has been acknowledged that funding increased in recent years but we are still not back to where we were and that has an impact on real lives, access, etc.
I will briefly discuss the attrition point. That was one of the big concerns as we hit Covid and it was difficult for us to get a picture around that. Again, with the support of the Minister on the national training group, we did a lot of work to get a better picture. I am pleased to say, and we can provide the figures, that it is a far better picture than one may have imagined it would be. Maybe it could be argued that, in a time of Covid, what else would one be doing. Emigration was not possible and there was no work outside, etc. Equally, it goes back to the services point that, I think, was made by Senator Byrne. The fact that the services were there for students was a huge part in keeping the connection. That is not to deny the point we made previously that Covid exacerbated inequalities. If someone did not have Wi-Fi or a laptop or there were too many people in the family trying to use the only computer or the only table, those were the sorts of things that pointed to inequality. It meant that we had to try to roll out, with the assistance of the Government, a lot of direct support to keep the attention of students and to keep them supported.
Professor Diarmuid Hegarty:
I was delighted to hear from Mr. Miley that international recruitment is lifting. The benefit to the Irish economy of the active policy on the part of the universities and the THEA sector in terms of recruiting international students has saved Irish education. That has been a tremendous piece of work and it is important that is understood and appreciated. We in the private sector have known that we rely very much upon international recruitment.
To answer the question posed by Senator Malcolm Byrne about the impact of reducing fees, that has competition implications. We feel that we are in competition with institutions and at a disadvantage because of State funding. That will be intensified and is something we will have to look at.
A question was asked on costs. In the public sector, a degree course costs on average between €9,000 and €10,000 depending on the course, while the average cost in the private sector is €6,500. That does not mean there is overspending in the public sector but probably reflects the fact that we have the opportunity to extract economies that the public sector does not have.
That is the reality and the comparison if you are looking for those figures.
Mr. Jim Miley:
I will not repeat the points already made. I will make a number brief points. On the cost issue, as part of the funding analysis in the follow-on report to the Cassells report by the expert group on funding, which was chaired by Ms Bríd Horan, there was some comparative analysis in it that showed the Irish system compared very favourably on a cost-efficiency basis with other systems around Europe.
On the access or progression issue that Deputy Farrell referred to, we need to recognise that the two Covid-19 packages supplied by the Government helped our institutions to supply the services and provide some direct support to students which helped to mitigate some of the effects of Covid-19. The good news, although I do not have the data to hand, is that there are no indications from what we have seen of any diminution in progression levels as a result of Covid-19, perhaps because of the factors outlined by Dr. Ryan or otherwise. A combination of the supports and the fact there was nothing else to do except study may be the dominant issues. Progression levels across our institutions are very high and we compare very favourably with other countries in that. Among the universities we represent, the non-progression levels are below 10%. In some European countries from first year, they can be 30% to 40% to 50% where they have more unfiltered access to their systems.
I thank all of our guests for their submissions. I fully agree this is a critical conversation. Indeed the Minister himself has said the raison d’êtrefor the setting up of the new Department is to get the funding model right. This is an opportunity for us to do that.
I am very disappointed that despite the Minister promising month after month to have the economic analysis from the EU Commission, we could be having a much more informed conversation here were we to have that economic analysis in front of us to save us reinventing the wheel.
I 100% welcome that the Minister has taken the loan scheme off the table. If we are to look at a loan scheme even for a nurse in a public institute for higher education, she or he would come out of college €12,000 in debt, or €27,000 in debt out of a for-profit private college. It is very important we agree on that from the outset.
In looking at what our guests have been saying, this presents a stark picture when we look at the funding per student. There is 37% less funding per student today than there was in 2008. We now have of all the advances, all the technology and all the investments that have needed to be made in higher education. The difficulty I have is reconciling this. If we are going to have a proper discussion about this, we need to be honest across the board. The Minister will say he is providing the greatest level of funding to third level education this year than ever before. This is what people are hearing. Yet, when we look under the bonnet, we see 37% less funding per student. Does that 37% less funding per student figure include Covid-19 funding and how much of that is outside the standstill cost? I am trying to get at how much goes to the student. I would ask that we talk to that issue for the moment, namely, the standstill costs and the 37%. Would Mr. Miley like to take that question first?
Mr. Jim Miley:
I thank the Deputy for her question. The challenge last year for our member universities was they took in just short of 10% extra students on a full-time equivalent basis in a single year. It was an extraordinary increase. There was the normal growth, if one calls it that, and then we had the extra numbers arising from the grade inflation and Covid-19. We were asked on two occasions by the system to provide extra places and on both occasions we responded favourably. The headline figure for the increase in funding last year looks attractive, but when the fact 10% extra students are being paid for is included, along with the national pay agreements, over which we have no control, the rates for which the Government sets for our staff, and which we must pay, the net increase for the core grant for the eight institutions that we represent was €22 per student. That is what it came to. Effectively, it is a standstill situation. That is the reality.
In fact, looking at national pay awards, the amount of money the HEA provided to our institutions did not cover in full the extra staff costs we had to pay out. Our universities actually lost money in the national pay round last year, to put it in very bald and simple terms. Those are the realities. What we are saying is that whatever package comes through in the coming weeks and if there is a political decision taken to reduce student contributions, that is a political decision-----
Mr. Jim Miley:
The only communication was in the Oireachtas where the Minister confirmed it would cost an extra €81 million a year for a €1,000 drop in the student contribution. There has been no other engagement on that. The question then arises that if there is a reduction, there then needs to be a commensurate filling of that gap by the State, in addition to filling the gap that is already there.
The needs of students must be paramount here. In our submission we have made it very clear we believe the student supports in the form of SUSI grants must be a significant part of the package as well. We believe the supports should go to where they are needed most. I said in my submission that it is unacceptable in 2022 in Ireland that a student’s educational future is determined by his or her postcode. Therefore, the reform package must address that issue also within the overall-----
Mr. Jim Miley:
They spend a great deal more on their systems. Looking at comparable smaller countries and the proportion of their GDP they spend on third level education, in the best examples it is two and a half times better than Ireland. One can go to places like Finland, Norway, Denmark and so on. Smaller emerging countries like Estonia are doing better than us in this regard.
Dr. Joseph Ryan:
To echo what Mr. Miley has just said and I will not labour the points, we have pressed for the publication, as has the Deputy, of what has come back from Europe. It would make for a much better conversation.
Mr. Miley mentioned a package. I do not doubt for one moment there is a great amount of work going on between the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on this. We have indications but have no definite news on that. It raises the question as to whether we are going to have a decision or a debate. This is such a complex area and is so important for the country that we need an inclusive debate around this.
The genius of the Irish people is that we want a Rolls-Royce service with a Lada outlay, and this goes to the heart of the Deputy’s question. The truth is that our system, which was acknowledged by Deputy Farrell, has done very well, but we should think of what it could do with a little bit more. That is always the way.
This goes back to the point Deputy Farrell made and that I made in my own submission, which is that it is very much about prioritisation here. When it comes down to the hard politics of it, looking at housing, the health services and education, it is a question of how we make our case.
Going back to the Deputy's question on the metrics of this, Mr. Miley and I could possibly do some work on it and come back to the Deputy to try to give her some substantial ammunition on this.
I am very happy to do that. This speaks to the Deputy's point as to how this funding issue is to be reconciled. The truth is that this is a pot of funding that is not sufficient, with an increasing number of students. There is a move to encourage students into other areas, including apprenticeships, which is absolutely correct, further education, etc., but students will vote as they vote. Overriding all this are the sustainable development goals, particularly goal 4, which refers to access and equity for everyone. Then we are talking about regional sustainability etc. It is a complex mix and it seems to me to invite a fuller conversation.
Dr. Joseph Ryan:
It is there in the Act, as I said. It needs to be triggered. There is an openness to this and, in fairness to the Department, we have set up a working group that is looking at this under the Secretary General. The difficulty now is that the economics of it do not make sense. It would need some assistance from the Government to make sense. In other words, the cost to the student cohort if this accommodation were built and then rented out would be too high. The impact is on opportunity and equity, and we saw that through Covid. Mr. Miley and I were involved in talks on this, including on international students and where we could put them. We talked at one stage about Citywest. It just pointed to the fact that we do not have the infrastructure at times. There is an element of resilience and learning to this, it seems to me.
I thank our guests for coming in. I agree with Dr. Ryan that this is a critical conversation, but we have to be careful it does not become an endless conversation. It is important we get a decision on this. The fact that we have a new Department set up means that it is inevitable a decision will have to be made on this issue. We all seem to agree that there is no sustainable funding model in place at present. May I ask Mr. Miley what impact that is having on Irish universities?
Mr. Jim Miley:
I think there is a dual impact. In the first instance, and as Dr. Ryan said, the quality of what we provide has been maintained to a great extent. However, our student-staff ratios have slipped down to 23:1 as opposed to the European average of 15:1. That sounds fine and dandy when compared with the ratios in primary and secondary level. In reality, however, the difference in the third level context is tutorials and the way in which teaching is structured. It needs that much more intensive, one-to-one feature. Students are not getting that. That came home to roost particularly in the Covid scenario, when students were operating digitally and they lost a significant component of that. That quality-related issue is the biggest risk. As Dr. Ryan has pointed out, if the quality is lost, one's reputation is lost. It takes not a month or a year to recover that; it takes a decade or more.
Mr. Jim Miley:
There is a risk that if we do not turn the corner meaningfully now with this package, it will decline. There can be no doubt about that.
The second area is capital investment. Our universities have borrowed €1 billion but, in doing so, they can borrow to build facilities only if they can match their borrowings, in some cases with State funding and in other cases with philanthropy funding. One cannot get 100% borrowing to do anything. In spite of having borrowed €1 billion, we still have a major capital funding deficit. Bríd Horan, who chaired the funding committee, has made a submission to this committee and outlined to it that, since 2016, taking the Cassells recommendations, we are now of the order of €2.5 billion behind the curve on core recurrent funding for the system and €2.2 billion behind the curve on capital funding. There is therefore a huge demand for extra facilities, and we are now bulging at the seams. We are in a discussion with the Government about producing extra places on medical courses. There is absolutely no lack of willingness on the part of the sector to do that. The reality, however, is that if a medical student is to be trained, labs and facilities are needed. In some situations they are now up against a brick wall on that, so unless the investment is made, we cannot do that.
We in Ireland do not have the tradition of philanthropy that there is in other countries such as the United States or the United Kingdom. Does Dr. Ryan think there is a role for the private sector in making funding available to third level institutions? I ask Dr. Ryan in particular because I was recently at Munster Technological University and was very impressed by the fact that students on the Bishopstown campus were being trained to make medical devices for companies in the locality. Does Dr. Ryan see an opportunity for the State to avail of that?
Dr. Joseph Ryan:
Yes. That is a very good point. We have the national training fund. The issue with that is and always has been how it is best utilised. The technological sector is very much linked into the region, business, etc., and there is a willingness on the part of business to support this, but doing so in a structured way is one of the issues.
Going back to a previous point Deputy O'Callaghan mentioned, and Mr. Miley mentioned capital investment, to give the Deputy an insight into that, we have wonderful research centres throughout the country, from the established university sector to our sector. We had a window into that through Covid. We saw it through some of the commentary. I have talked to colleagues in those sectors and they do not compare with their European peers because they just do not have the infrastructure to advance. Researchers can be hired now; the difficulty is where to put them, where the machinery they need is and where the space they need to work is. People ask where the deficits are. That is where we see the deficits.
May I ask Professor Hegarty about student loans? The third option put forward by Peter Cassells was that there be deferred payment of fees. I would say that an assessment would show that one of the major avenues to availing of and to getting high disposable income is having a third level education. Huge numbers of people have been able to become wealthy and successful as a result of their third level education. What is Professor Hegarty's view of that deferred system, whereby people would not pay fees at the time of their education but, when they reach 40 or 50 years of age and a certain income threshold, they would repay loans?
Professor Diarmuid Hegarty:
I think it is eminently sensible, but the reality of the matter is that students loans are politically toxic. I believe it is right. Deputy Conway-Walsh was worried about the €27,000 people would have to repay after leaving university. That same person will probably borrow up to €400,000 as a mortgage on a house. In that context, a €27,000 student loan to be repaid is very small. We are not talking about the hundreds of thousands paid in the UK, so I think there is a lack of balance here. The idea that the loan does not become repayable until an income threshold has been reached is very fair. In the event of redundancy, unemployment or whatever else, the student loan should not be repayable during that period. It is workable. I proposed in my paper that we should have not a student loan system as a substitute but that there should be a student loan system through a not-for-profit entity providing loans at no more than 4% such that it is not designed to enrich the coffers of financial institutions but, rather, provides the additional funds people need to survive third level. If we propose a student loan system as a substitute, I do not think that will be a runner politically.
I wish to come back on an earlier point about student accommodation.
There is a serious problem of trust in Government. Members must let me tell them what exactly happened in respect of the tax-based funding of student accommodation. It was introduced in the Finance Act of 1999. The deadline was to be December 2004 and it was extended to June 2006. It had the aim of encouraging private funds into building student accommodation, which it did. Then, in the Finance Act of 2006 that funding was effectively withdrawn. People had borrowed money on the basis of substantial funds to build student accommodation. The deals with the banks were done on the basis that the repayment would be made out of tax-free income because that was what was offered. The Dáil chose to withdraw that relief so that the prospective rental income, which was really effectively scheduled for repayment, was taxed. To my mind that was a reprehensible breach of trust. I am not sure developers are going to trust Government if it offers tax-based funding for student accommodation.
If we want student accommodation, we have to support it in a number of ways. It could be done by providing tax relief on the rent that is paid, through a similar provision to the Finance Act of 1999 which gave relief immediately, but with the clear promise that it will not be withdrawn halfway through. It could be done through student supports, through SUSI. There are a number of ways. Right now, student accommodation is very expensive and not open to students in lower income groups. That is the reality of the matter. Having said that, we built our student accommodation in 2004 and it is now full. It reflects what Deputy Conway-Walsh was referring to, a shortage of accommodation.
Six years on from the Cassells report, we are still having the conversation. It is correct that we are having a conversation, as all the witnesses have pointed out. We need an ongoing debate around it. We are behind the setting up of a new Department on the basis that this will be sorted out. It should be sorted out in two ways. First, some of the money that is going in at the moment is clearly to keep things at a stand-still position, as the witnesses have outlined. That needs to change and requires significant investment.
Alongside that there has been an ingraining of inequality over the past few decades. It is always displayed in our education system when it comes to who has access and who does not. We have had conversations about private schooling and we are now having conversations about who can and cannot afford to go to college and who can and cannot afford accommodation. I take on board the different points of view as to whether fees should be abolished. Apart from anything, an expansion of SUSI grants has to be provided at the very minimum for those who are entitled. It was part of previous budgets but it needs to go beyond that.
I believe we are in the middle of a revolution comparable to the industrial revolution. We need massive amounts of new skills and new investment and capital to get us over the hump of a lack of skills. That is where we are at the moment. We are putting money into retrofitting and so many different green areas. We have to get over the hump and get a massive number of people skilled in those areas. I do not think the system is up to scratch at the moment. That is not the fault of anybody here but it is the fault of decades of underinvestment, as has been outlined. I would appreciate any thoughts the witnesses have on this new aspect that is being demanded of them and of us all as a society. Many of these kinds of revolutions go unseen because we are in the middle of them. That is exactly what is happening at the moment.
Mr. Jim Miley:
I thank the Senator and echo her view on the SUSI grants. We wholeheartedly support that. There has been an increase in the recent budget but it is critical that it is a key component of any future package as we go forward. On skills and the revolution, as the Senator rightly calls it, we are conscious of the need to adapt the system of third level education. The traditional undergraduate and postgraduate degrees will remain key pillars of our system into the future. However, we need to supplement them substantially with a suite of flexible learning programmes. One of those, which has been funded under the human capital initiative, is the micro-credentials programme we are running. It is a four-year programme where we are getting all of our universities to develop a suite of small-scale but fully university accredited programmes. Already, a number of our universities have those in the market. We are trying to pull them together on a common platform with common standards, accredited by QQI, as the national accreditation body, so that a person who has an IT degree but wants to do a top-up in business law or vice versa, or any other combination, can do it easily and can get access to those accredited programmes in a very flexible way. The next step would be to stack those so effectively an individual would have the opportunity to stack credits from different universities into a composite qualification.
That is a key priority project for us. The work is already under way. We hope it will be formally launched later this year or early next year on that common platform. That is just the start. We need to drive it forward. As we go forward, the notion of coming out of college with a degree and that doing people for life is dead. Everyone will need top-up qualifications and we think our institutions are best placed to provide them.
We have had witnesses from the secondary education sector before the committee previously. The lack of flexibility in our system was clear throughout Covid. It is an opportunity for us all but it also takes significant investment in the kinds of programmes Mr. Miley is talking about. We believe it is essential.
Dr. Joseph Ryan:
On the question of investment, if we look at the agendas in Europe 2030, it is a green agenda and a sustainability agenda. We will have to move to a lifelong learning model. That is exactly the way the Government shaped the Technological Universities Act as it is now. It is a cultural change. We will move from the front-loaded education system to a much more lifelong model. We are sharing work on micro-credentials, on which the Irish Universities Association is leading. We are doing a parallel piece on recognition of higher learning, working with Mr. Miley. These are key facilitating instruments to allow for this.
To try to fuel that, we have had to go through the national recovery and resilience plan to try to get some of the wherewithal. Through the HEA, we pressed the button on that just last night. It is a very complex piece of work. I am happy to share it with the Senator so she can see the design that is going in to try to deliver on that. One of the factors that militates against this is that we have so much competitive funding now. That tends to put people's eyes on the close win rather than the longer strategic horizon, which is where we need to be thinking.
Professor Diarmuid Hegarty:
The Senator asked for solutions. I have three of them. The first is a proposal we made to the Government in 1999, basically in response to a tender to create places for students on programmes in IT. Our proposal was that the Government would pay for the first two years of the course and the employers would pay for the remaining two years. We did not levy any capital; the college funded that itself. The cost of that at the time was £5,000. Under the traditional model, the Department of Education funded £30,000 per place, broken down into £10,000 capital and £5,000 a year for four years. Effectively, we were training five students at the same cost as one student in the traditional sector. We believed this was what the Government needed and the Department would be delighted with the proposals. In retrospect, we realised what fools we were because, in fact, there was no appreciation of it. Indeed, it created so much embarrassment that the Government felt constrained to actually block private institutions from making subsequent tenders. If members want to deal with this problem and to have open solutions, that is possible but there is a need to engage. The Government needs to engage. By the way, we are talking here about students who studied for two years and then began working. Their employers were more than happy to pay their fees. They were glad to get the students because they were very useful to them after two years. We are back to there being a significant shortage of staff, and imaginative solutions such as that will work. It would not have worked two or three years ago.
My second suggestion is to consider tax relief on fees. After all, if a person is bearing an expense which would otherwise be borne 100% by the State, why not have the State support them by giving tax relief on fees? At most, the State will be paying 48% and it may be paying only 20%. That is another solution.
Another possibility is to encourage institutions to work with employers to put in place a student loan system. Under the European strategic investment fund, it is possible to arrange student loans. I referred to this in our paper. Those who are already in employment are obvious candidates for this and will be able to repay. We are not talking about large sums. If the committee wants the funding to fill the skills gap, that is definitely possible. It just needs imagination and engagement.
There is probably not enough time to go into the loan model at this stage. I do not want to leave people with the sense that I am in agreement on it. I do not think it is an appropriate solution. There is probably not enough time to have a full discussion on it. My main point is this will require huge investment. I look forward to seeing what it is because I think the deficit at the moment is underestimated, quite apart from the inequalities.
I am delighted to have third level education behind me. Young people watching this debate will have heard the likes of Deputy Jim O'Callaghan saying students could pay back college fees when they are in their 40s, but people in my generation cannot even afford a house. It is ever so daunting a conversation we are having. As for looking at the European level and trying to compare ourselves with Europe, let us start with where we are as a nation and comparing levels within Ireland. Professor Hegarty rightly pointed to the 16% participation rate in Ballyfermot. I am a Ballyfermot woman myself. Actually, that figure has risen through the years. In 2009, it was only 7%. That increase is positive. The rate in Dublin 6, however, is 99%. Let us look at how the education system works as a whole. I know Deputy Farrell was talking about how great it is, but it is good for the few, not for the many.
That leads me to my question. Do our guests believe the current funding model addresses the diversity of needs when it comes to marginalised communities? I refer to students who not only struggle to access third level education but also experience many other barriers when they do get that access. Some degrees require financial and social capital for students to progress and reach their potential. Even when a student from a marginalised community has access, he or she may not be able to go on and become a solicitor or barrister because of the requirements relating to that course. In terms of figures, the Traveller community makes up 1% of the population, with 40,000 Travellers in Ireland, yet less than 1% of Travellers go on to third level education. Do our guests believe the right measures and funding are in place for people from ethnic minority groups or marginalised communities?
On DEIS schools, is there enough funding in the context of reinforcing quotas for DEIS schools? Are young people getting the equality of education that is being delivered in other European countries? A solution suggested earlier is to fix the system. That would involve investment in the education system for all young people. We are falling miles behind other European countries when it comes to investment in the education system.
Mr. Jim Miley:
I will address one of the Senator's points and then hand over to colleagues. Her core question was whether the model addresses the needs of all students. It is clear it does not do so at the moment. That is why in our submission we have outlined that a package of measures is essential. It would be damaging to address the student fee issue but not address the core funding issue, or vice versa. In an ideal world where there was an open chequebook, third level education would be free for everyone in all its respects, including the fees and all the related expenses associated with it. However, we need to be pragmatic. We do not live in an ideal world and there will always be a limited budget available. We recognise that in any discussion we have with the Government. In that context, choices have to be made in respect of making the limited budget available and prioritising those who need it most.
That speaks to the point the Senator is raising. Although the SUSI system has done a lot to give some students an opportunity they may not otherwise have had, some of those students are not getting enough. They are getting their fees paid but are still unable to afford to live while going to college. There are other prospective students who still are not getting in the door. We believe that needs to be reformed. There are preferential access routes through the disability access route to education, DARE, and higher education access route, HEAR schemes. The points system has been moderated to give opportunity to people who have a disadvantage, and that needs to be continually upgraded and improved. There is no point in opening the door in the context of the points system if the funding is not there to support the student on the other side.
We think this part of the package is fundamental to any Government decision that comes.
Dr. Joseph Ryan:
Senator Flynn's question and Mr. Miley's answer speak to how all of these things are interconnected. I agree with Mr. Miley on whether the core funding model supports it all. No, it does not. If ever we saw a light shone on that, it was through Covid. It certainly showed up the inequality. I have mentioned sustainable development goal 4 and the question of equity. As Mr. Miley said, it should not be down to postcode. It should be available to everyone who has the determination, ambition and willingness to go. Some people will need more support. Access is one question but the Senator is absolutely right to focus on it. It is only one part of it. We then have to support people when they are in the system. Some good work was done and continues to be done by the HEA on these questions of indicators of success. It has looked at measures such as numeracy and literacy. This work has been going on for more than ten years at this stage. In fairness, it helps to focus where supports are given. As I have said, Covid has shown this. Other work is being done by the national forum, which has done some great work. The students themselves have also done work on this.
Professor Diarmuid Hegarty:
I absolutely agree with the Senator. It is all about equality of opportunity. It is about more than just being at college. It goes right back to primary level. It goes back to the family. Students in Dublin 6 have the advantage that their parents probably went to third level. They are committed to third level. What will change things significantly is learn and earn. Apprenticeships will change things. We have a scheme with the Central Bank whereby it employs students from leaving certificate and pays their fees to study by night. It is schemes such as these that will change things. It needs to go further back.
We have made endless submissions to the Department. I must pay tribute to the work done by universities, technological universities and schools on getting people into third level. More funds need to be focused on this. We have made endless submissions to the Government asking for a target to be set and to pay on results. We have asked for performance to be paid for based on the numbers who get into and succeed at third level. This would concentrate energies on achieving results. We have made submission after submission on this but they are falling on deaf ears. This is largely due to ideological obstacles. If we want the problem dealt with, we need to get energy focused on it right from primary level. It can be done but it needs imagination, energy and determination. We have offered it but it has fallen on deaf ears.
I am not being naive. Obviously a lot has to be done. What the witnesses are looking for is the Minister and the Department not to reinvent the wheel but to work with what we already have and with the solutions the witnesses have already provided. I thank the witnesses.
The submissions of both THEA and the IUA reference the National Training Fund. This is a very important issue. The programme for Government has committed to utilising the National Training Fund surplus. The suspension of EU fiscal rules due to Covid also provided a window of opportunity to do this. This has not happened so far. The reserve was as high as €817 million a year ago and was projected to increase. This money was supposed to be invested in training and education. Do the witnesses believe the National Training Fund should be used to provide core funding rather than the current situation of allocating to higher education through mechanisms such as the human capital initiative?
My next question is on the stark inequalities that were exposed again in the CSO figures last week. The gap between the northern and western regions and the national average is now estimated to be three times higher than it was a decade ago. That is disgraceful. Underinvestment in key infrastructural assets is likely to have contributed to the rising disparities. The economist John Daly has looked at further education. He says that higher education institutes based in the northern and western regions on average received capital funding of €316 per undergraduate enrolled between 2010 and 2020. This was below the corresponding national figure of €375. Capital investment in the same regions was below the State average in eight out of the past ten years. What needs to be done in the northern and western regions to address this disparity? I very much welcome the Atlantic Technological University. How much funding will have to be weighted? We need positive discrimination to address the imbalance.
Mr. Jim Miley:
I will take the question on the National Training Fund. The question is whether it should be used for core funding. We speak to IBEC, which represents employers. Its members contribute the levies to the National Training Fund. As I said, an extra €191 million a year has been going in since 2017. We understand the surplus is now approaching €1 billion. Frankly, it is bizarre we are here speaking about a scarcity of funds in the sector while €1 billion is sitting in a bank account somewhere in the State. This issue has to be fixed. Employers who contribute money are equally adamant it needs to be fixed. Its current framing in a very rigid skills framework is too narrow. If we look at IBEC's submissions on this, it has made the case it needs to be broadened. All of our institutions are involved in producing graduates and in doing research to provide skills or to provide the base for skills in the economy. We need a broader interpretation and a mechanism for this. It cannot be beyond the ingenuity of the system to come up with this. It is obscene that the money remains unspent while there is a glaring need from students and the institutions that house those students for funding.
Dr. Joseph Ryan:
I agree with Mr. Miley. Our understanding is that the fund stands at approximately €1 billion, which is what I said in my opening statement. It should definitely be used for core funding. One of the questions we have asked continuously is on the governance of this. I do not mean this in a bad sense. If employers see this as a tax, they want to see a return in terms of skills. How they feed into skills priorities goes to the Deputy's question. In this regard, the north west might be somewhat different from the east coast.
I could not agree more with the Deputy on positive discrimination. I have to acknowledge the work done on the Technological University Research Network report. It invested money to try to get these nascent technological universities up and running. It has been very helpful. We have been speaking about continuing this. I mentioned the work done on the national recovery and resilience plan. The Deputy is well aware of the work done through the Royal Irish Academy's higher education futures group. This had a particular focus on the north west and cross-Border education. I mention this because there is probably a question as to how we inform public policy on detailed questions such as this. Very good work is being done on this. The Deputy has done her own work on it as we well know.
That sort of work will be critical to this.
Professor Diarmuid Hegarty:
The Deputy' really needs to put to IBEC her question on how the money can be applied, but I presume the employers are taking the line that they do not want the money going into a black hole; they want it to be used to enhance skills. Senator Pauline O'Reilly referred to the significant skills challenge. What is needed is a significant expansion in the Springboard+ programme. If this money was used to acquire, if one likes, skills education on a tendered basis, it would be more effective. I referred to the situation back in 1999 when there was a tender to create IT places but that was subsequently blocked by the Department of Education. When one goes to tender, one gets the kind of economies whereby five students are educated at the same cost as one student and they come out as graduates with Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, degrees as good as those from any other institution. If the national training fund is to be used, that should be focused on skills training and skills education and it should be allowed to go out to tender.
Professor Hegarty and I will agree to disagree. I passionately believe that higher education and further education is a public good. I have put my cards on the table. That is why I believe that in order to have the type of model we require, we need to invest in core funding in the way it is done very successfully in other countries.
If I have time, I will ask-----
I refer to the international partnerships. I very much agree in the context of the exchange of learning and all that can be done there, but I refer to the possibilities for all-island partnerships as well and their development. The lack of funding is a significant impediment to such partnerships. What can we do across the island in that regard? I am thinking particularly in terms of medicine and addressing the labour shortage in hospitals and primary care on an all-island basis such that we can have those partnerships and the exchange of learning. That is being done in the context of cancer research and the all-island strategy in that regard.
Mr. Jim Miley:
I wholeheartedly agree that all-Ireland partnership is something for which we need to push harder. The shared island fund has opened a window of possibilities in that regard, with funding available for research on both sides of the Border. There are structural barriers to all-Ireland partnerships. I have raised previously at the committee the issue of the timing of leaving certificate results, for example, which mitigates against Northern Ireland students applying for places in colleges down here. Consideration should be given to a change in the timing of those results. That does not relate to funding, which is the topic for this discussion. As regards international partnerships, we welcome the supports the Government has given to the European Universities Initiative and the universities participating in it. We need much more such support going into the future.
Some of our guests have appeared at the committee previously, so I welcome them back. I was listening to the meeting in my office upstairs earlier. Several of our guests spoke about the opportunities for students coming from DEIS schools at secondary level. I taught in the secondary sector for the best part of 15 years, 11 or 12 of which were in a DEIS school. Professor Hegarty mentioned the idea of expanding quotas for programmes of higher demand. How can we expand into DEIS schools and give those students further opportunities?
To follow on from the remarks of previous speakers in respect of funding, this might not be a popular question but is there much to be said for expanding the existing SUSI offering and strengthening resources targeted at those students, particularly those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds? A level of funding could be maintained, though perhaps not the existing level, and funding could be prioritised for those who need it most.
I have no doubt that student accommodation was discussed earlier in the meeting. In my city of Cork, there is considerable demand for it. We are always hearing stories about student accommodation, whether on local radio or from students on social media platforms or whatever it might be. There is a significant amount going on in the context of the provision of accommodation for students and how difficult it is to get it. There are issues relating to putting down deposits and losing deposits and the whole thing. There is no panacea or silver bullet that would cure our woes overnight. What are the views of our guests in respect of providing better access to funding or whatever the case may be for higher level institutions to address the student accommodation crisis?
Professor Diarmuid Hegarty:
On the issue of student accommodation, before the Deputy joined the meeting I mentioned there are several solutions to the student accommodation issue. Tax-based funding would be helpful but it has to be tax-based funding that is not withdrawn almost immediately on its provision. Tax-based funding would help in the context of the life of the loans people take out in order to fund student accommodation, as would honesty on the part of the Government in terms of keeping to its word in respect of not withdrawing the scheme.
I refer to the point made by Deputy Conway-Walsh in respect of the staffing of the medical sector. We have an opportunity here in terms of progression. It took five years to happen but we have established the national apprenticeship in healthcare for health carers. There should really be a progression path for health carers to go beyond that and become advanced health carers, assistant nurses and so on. We need that and I think it would greatly help students in DEIS schools. If students can get into a lean-and-earn model fairly quickly whereby they are working, learning and advancing, that will help greatly. As long as we have a situation where the only way to get into work is to get into college, we will need to have quotas for students from DEIS schools. There are other ways, however. The apprenticeship and traineeship routes need to be developed and supported by the Government.
Student accommodation is very expensive. We in Griffith College are fortunate that we built our student accommodation in 2004 and it is two to a room so we are in a position to charge approximately 70% of the rate that would be charged for single-occupancy accommodation. As a result, the accommodation is full. It is very difficult to fight the market and the reality of the situation is that the market for accommodation actually determines the prices students are paying. Some form of support in terms of enhanced SUSI grants would deal with it immediately but there is also a need to expand the stock of accommodation. That requires tax-based funding that is given and not withdrawn.
Dr. Joseph Ryan:
I thank the Deputy for his questions. I share his background in teaching at second level. I loved those days. We have agreed through the conversation this morning that equity of access is key. I think we are all agreed on that. The technological sector, of which I am part, is the sector that has really given that voice to democratisation of opportunity for students.
Again, the point we are making is that access must link to the supports for those students when they are coming in. People are coming in with different indicative chances of success, so the supports must be targeted.
We are starting a conversation again with the further education and training sector. It is about continuity of education; it is not just about progression, etc. I am looking forward to a productive conversation.
On accommodation, I will not repeat what we said earlier. The student bodies, to which we are talking, say accommodation is the highest priority and the biggest problem they have had over the past year. It emerged again under Covid. There is great pressure. We would love to get into the borrowing framework, as I said, but we would need Government support on that because the costing model will not work with the students.
This triangulates with the broader housing issue because students are now competing for the same housing that families are competing for. In fairness to the Department, it is examining this in a more holistic way.
Mr. Jim Miley:
On student accommodation, the reality faced by some of our members is that while they have planning permission for some student accommodation and the borrowings in place to pay for it, the cost of producing it is taking it to a level where students simply would not be able to afford it. Our members are very reluctant to go down a pathway of developing accommodation that is beyond the means of students. We have had a discussion with the Government and are awaiting a response. Student accommodation is part of the public good that Deputy Conway-Walsh spoke about in the broader scheme of third level education. In that context, the State needs to come up with some mechanism to support the building of additional student accommodation if it is to be made affordable for students.
My last point is specifically for Professor Hegarty. His submission states, "Given the skills shortage imperative, obstacles blocking the inclusion of private HEI representation at the National Skills Council and Regional Skills Fora should be removed." Could he expand on that for me? I am a little confused.
Professor Diarmuid Hegarty:
Basically, we have the National Skills Council and regional skills fora. The purpose is to identify the skills and ask educators to provide the courses that address the skills gaps. There would be feedback from the educators. We are funded through Springboard+ to do these things but it just does not make sense that we are not represented on the regional skills fora and the National Skills Council. If we were, the communication would be much better.
I welcome all the witnesses. We are talking about future funding at third level. The allocation of over 6,000 student places over the past two years, in incredible circumstances, including Covid lockdown, was a phenomenal achievement on the part of third level colleges and the Department. I note there is an additional €430 million in capital funding and that 45% of that will go towards the technological university sector, particularly for growing apprenticeships. Mr. Miley spoke to us about building, but even getting the apprenticeships and craftspeople in place is an issue. This is why we need to see the centres of excellence across the country.
I have a few comments before I ask questions. It was said that 60% of those between 25 and 35 have a third level qualification. We need to ensure students currently in primary and secondary school will achieve that level, if not higher. We need to ensure students at primary and secondary school will have access to third level. I acknowledge that numbers are increasing no end at third level.
It was positive to hear that non-Exchequer funding is returning to pre-Covid levels, particularly in respect of international students. That is due to our reputation. I would welcome the witnesses' comments on that. On the non-Exchequer funding package, I have a few questions on Horizon Europe. Some €95 billion has been allocated for that programme at European level. Over the past two years, how have researchers managed in applying for the funds?
From speaking to the Minister, Deputy Harris, and his office, I note that funding at third level is crucial for him. He will be bringing packages on this for review very shortly. It is crucial to have the correct lecturer–student ratio in so many areas. I studied history and French in NUIG and do not even want to say how many students were crammed in to listen to fantastic history lecturers. There are certain subjects, particularly in laboratory-based education, in respect of which the student–lecturer ratio has to be very small. We must have the infrastructural facilities to meet the demand for STEM subjects.
My first question is for Mr. Miley of the IUA. He referred to research and development. He compared our funding for research at third level with that available elsewhere. The funding level is a bugbear of mine. We must increase our funding drastically. Mr. Miley referred to GBARD and pointed out that we need to reach the EU average of 1.43%. I would be very supportive of an increase in funding for research and development. Could Mr. Miley comment on this? When we have to fight for funding, we show its benefits by demonstrating Ireland's innovation, the talent that third level research produces and what is delivered for communities and society and businesses in general. We demonstrate how investment results in jobs in our regions. We need to show that. Are the walls around third level colleges coming down to show the impact of research on society? If Mr. Miley wants to make a couple of comments on that, he may do so.
Senator Flynn spoke a little about my next point. NUIG has an inspirational leader in Mr. Owen Ward, who is now the first full-time Traveller education officer at the university.
My next question is for Dr. Ryan. The Minister, Deputy Harris, was in GMIT regarding the development of our new Atlantic Technological University, which will open on 1 April. I was delighted, of course, to see much more gender balance. Ms Maura McNally, chair of the Bar Council, will be the chair of the governing body of the Atlantic Technological University. Dr. Ryan spoke about how the technological universities reflect their geographic areas and where we come from and referred to how university campus towns will attract investment. Could he comment on what he has seen over the past year or two regarding how this is happening? As I asked Mr. Miley, how can we fight for investment in research, which we clearly need? I am referring to how we show the impact of third level education and research in communities in rural and regional areas. It could be a matter of delivering through the rural networks and Irish Rural Link and of funding under Horizon Europe. It could also be a question of how we develop transport links and broadband in rural areas and drive investment in this regard.
I very much appreciate Professor Hegarty's comment on apprenticeships and on the head of Volkswagen having been an apprentice. I was listening to the professor's comments earlier. While I very much agree that we need to consider the rules, including the financial rules, concerning the National Training Fund, it must be opened up. Our apprenticeship programme and the investment we are seeing in apprenticeships is to drive that. We need to make sure the fund is being used. It funds minimum training allowances for craft apprentices over 25. I ask Professor Miley to start.
Mr. Jim Miley:
The question the Senator asked about the benefits of research to society is important. We were recently involved in an RTÉ series called "Change Makers" which told the stories of various researchers in our system who are doing things of direct benefit to society. There was a very interesting example from Galway. I have forgotten the professor's name. He calls himself "physicianeer". He is a medical guy and an engineer all in one
Mr. Jim Miley:
That was a real case of addressing the needs of people, in this case people with sight loss, working with companies in the medtech cluster in Galway in developing this world-class research and in producing solutions that benefit people's eyes in a very practical way. That is just one little vignette of the value of research. One of the challenges in our system and what we have been trying to do with that series and elsewhere is to show the real practical value of what happens. People sometimes think of people locked behind doors wearing lab coats and wonder what difference it makes to their lives.
Another example would be in Limerick. We now have very strong collaboration from the University of Limerick, which has started an immersive software programme, working directly with some of the leading ICT companies in the world. That is a teaching element but also has a research element. The connections are very much there. We probably all need to tell the story of it better.
Dr. Joseph Ryan:
I thank the Senator for her question. She mentioned the prologue about international reputation. We are working on the international strategy at the moment. The Department is working on that and we are feeding into it. That question links into the broader policy question of demand for places in higher education. Mr. Miley and I spoke about this privately earlier.
The Senator asked me directly where we come from. I noticed her Twitter feed earlier this morning extolling the praise of central Ballinasloe which Mr. Miley will be delighted to see. I am very impressed with her being here with us in person. When we were setting up these technological universities, including the Atlantic Technological University, ATU, part of that was about telling the story. It was very much about engaging with the region to convince the region to bring people with it. This was not just about the institutions. The Senator knows this. She has supported it, as did Deputy Conway-Walsh. It was about the ambition of our region to come together. These are catalysts for the sustainable growth of that region.
I take Mr. Miley's final point and what is implicit in the Senator's question. There is something about how we together tell the story. It goes back to my point about prioritisation and there may be some work to be done on that.
Professor Diarmuid Hegarty:
The approach is to deal with the obstacle. Let me explain what the obstacle is. The problem with apprenticeships is often getting the mentors. Small and medium-sized firms in many ways provide an ideal surrounding in the sense that the mentors are actually there and they are doing it day to day. Those mentors might be owners of the business or their relatives or senior people in a small business. The main obstacle is that the small to medium-sized firms cannot afford the two days when apprentices are out attending tuition. If that were funded through the National Training Fund, that would significantly increase the uptake of apprenticeships in small and medium-sized firms. I accept Deputy Conway-Walsh's point that that is where private funds could be used to fund a public good. We need to remember that he who pays the piper calls the tune. If employers feel they are paying for it, it is important they should see a return and the return is very much in the public interest.
I have a number of questions to put and they are a little bit all over the map, so I will keep my prefacing comments to a minimum. I echo what Senator Malcolm Byrne said earlier in welcoming the appointment of Patrick Prendergast to the board of the governing authority in what will now be the South East Technological University, SETU. It is a clear indication of the ambition for that institution to have somebody of that calibre. I also welcome the Minister's appointment of Jim Bergin and Ruth Beadle.
I find myself at variance with Professor Hegarty's position on the provision of loans. We can consider the social and cultural capital for someone from Dublin 10 versus someone from Dublin 6. It may be very easy for somebody from Dublin 6 to take that level of debt on board to participate in third level education, but that will not be true of somebody in Dublin 10. I come at that from a personal point of view. My generation is the first in my family to access third level education. Had that bar been raised in front of us, I am not sure if we would have cleared it.
I have some questions for Mr. Miley. I suspect I may know the answer to this already. He made a comparison based on relative funding and he referenced GNI* when he mentioned 0.6%. I want to make sure we are comparing like with like. Because of our frothy GDP figures, we tend to use GNI*. Are we on a firm footing when we are comparing GDP figures in other countries with GNI*? Are we comparing like with like in that?
I would like to drill into that further. If we are the second worst in overall funding based on GNI* when we have those high levels of participation, I suppose the logical outworking of that is the cost may be subsumed into the increased pupil-teacher ratio that Mr. Miley mentioned. I absolutely agree with him that 23:1 is much too high to provide the level of education we need. The other component of that must be the cost to the individual student. Where does Ireland rank in the OECD on the cost to the individual student to access third level education?
Mr. Jim Miley:
I do not have the figures to hand across the entire OECD, but we are obviously aware of the figures in Europe. The direct contribution by students of €3,000 is now the highest within the EU. I do not have those figures right across the OECD. We know the UK charges £9,000. We are probably in the top one third in that. I will look at that OECD report and I can send the Deputy the details from that.
With the UK stepping out of the EU, are we not very much an EU outlier?
I wish to ask Dr. Ryan about the cost rental model he suggested. For a long time, cost rental has been a core Green Party housing policy. I was a member of the policy group that wrote it in for the first time, possibly going back to 2016. It strikes me now as that type of a jumper that is being worn by many people. I am not sure I recognise what cost rental now means when people refer to it. I would have factored in things like security of tenure and long-term tenure. That clearly does not apply in a third level context. Presumably these would be nine- to ten-month lets with a short-term letting element within that for a summertime letting. When Dr. Ryan says cost rental, what does he mean?
By the way, I very much welcome the fact that technological universities can borrow for student accommodation within Housing for All. That is pivotal in the case of Waterford, for example. It is very much required to provide income on campus for the new South East Technological university, SETU, and in terms of alleviating the pressure on the rest of the housing market. I would like to hear the nuts and bolts of how our guests envision a cost-rental model applying to this particular type of accommodation.
Dr. Joseph Ryan:
I thank the Deputy for his question. We are not coming with the solution; we are coming with the argument for the conversation. It goes back to the point made earlier by Mr. Miley that demand is certainly there for accommodation but the metrics are not working now for the students. If we are allowed to borrow now and we do build accommodation, it just is not going to be within the budget of students. My office is located not too far from here. There is beautiful student accommodation right across the road from it but one will not find the average Irish student living there. That is not the ballpark they are in. I am open to advice in respect of this and how it is done but, as Minister himself has said - he is open to this conversation - it seems that without direct Government support on this, the model of us building accommodation and then selling it or renting it out at that price is simply not going to be within the purview of students.
I worry about that term now having been used in so many contexts that the meaning is beginning to slide. For cost rental to be really effective within the housing market, we need a specific definition of what it should do and should not do.
I will turn briefly to Professor Hegarty. In broad terms, I agree with his observation that random selection is an obscenity. What that throws up, however, is that there are high-competition courses. I am wondering a little bit about whether throughput is being planned. I trained as a primary school teacher after training as a medievalist, a field I found out had a limited labour market. I turned to primary school teaching. There was a shortage of primary school teachers and places were scaled up as a result. There was then a failure to scale back those places. I sometimes worry that people are being trained for emigration. We have high-competition courses that are desirable for several reasons but are we matching third-level provision to what the needs will be? I do not necessarily believe in matching educational outcomes to the marketplace. That is not necessarily how one should guide educational outcomes. That said, is there an awareness of the danger that we may be educating people for emigration, particularly those in training to become veterinarians, doctors or educators, for example, whatever about broader education such as arts degrees?.
Professor Diarmuid Hegarty:
That is a good point. I will first address the Deputy's question on student loans. One of the things that concerns me is that because student loans have become so politically divisive and the subject so toxic, anybody who makes a suggestion in that connection is viewed as a purveyor of poison. In fact, I would be completely supportive of Donogh O'Malley's decision on free secondary education. We all see the benefit of that now. I am also completely supportive of the point made by the Deputy. The very fact that he could get access to third level and become a primary teacher and now represents his constituents in the Houses of the Oireachtas is testament enough to the benefit of that education. He should not get me wrong on that. In the context of the proposal we have made, we are talking about loans at the margin that would help people who could not otherwise take advantage because their family would not be able to support them or to suffer the income sacrifice to get them through third level. That is what we are proposing. We are not proposing a student loan system that acts in replacement of the existing grants. This can be done. It can be done with European support. I have no doubt about that. The money is there in Europe and a structure needs to be established to avail of it.
On the issue of cost rental, Mr. Miley made a very good point earlier. It is linked to the overall housing market. The sums are not right now but it may be the case that with some kind of joint venture arrangements involving private funding and public funding - State support that is delivered and adhered to, rather than State support that is promised and then withdrawn - it might be possible to square that circle. I would encourage developers, the State and the institutions to discuss options.
I refer to the Deputy's question on skills and preparing people for the right things. Ironically, the Deputy can point to the fact that he became a primary school teacher and then suddenly there was a surplus of primary school teachers, but the skill set he was given in terms of dealing with parents and young children stands to him today. We need to recognise that people's lives will change. People will change. Most people coming out of college now will have 15 different jobs in the course of their working lives and it will be impossible to prepare them for every one of those but we have to give them transversal skills. We have to give them the skills that enable them to effectively self-educate and transfer from job to job. They will need all these skills of dealing with people, acquiring knowledge and communicating. I could continue that list at length but the real point is that we need education to actually develop the individual personal skills. It is the most important thing. If that is done, the graduates will be equipped to make the transfers they-----
Dr. Joseph Ryan:
I thank the Deputy. On the Deputy's final point, again, it is that broader view of an education. If we were indentured to an economy, it would not be a proper education. Are we mindful? We have to be mindful because this is public money. We are informed by the National Skills Council and the regional skills forums. There is a significant amount of work that goes in with industrial liaison bodies, etc. The professions are a big part of it, as Mr. Miley will attest, along with ourselves. They are mindful of the numbers of people coming in. Placements are themselves a limitation. As a registrar, I developed a veterinary nursing course in Athlone. That involved talking to the veterinary council all the time, it outlining the demand for veterinary nurses, and then calibrating to that amount. It is not a free for all.
That is good. There is a differentiation in focus between technological universities and the other universities in that regard. Traditionally, the institutes of technology had a closer working relationship with industry and were guided in course development and so on, whereas the universities may have a wider remit. I am heartened that there is an eye to where people will go after their qualification.
Professor Diarmuid Hegarty:
To be honest, it is something that is really needed. I have only looked at it on a preliminary basis. There is funding available from the European Social Fund. It is a matter of putting together a proposal involving a partnership between the State and a financial institution. I have been talking to the credit unions on this. That must be done on the basis that there is a limit to the interest. It cannot work for the student if the interest rate is more than 4%. Can it work for the financial institution? One must bear in mind that Europe will actually guarantee 80% of the loan. At the same time, an interest rate of 4% is only attainable if there is a very high level of repayment. I think it is possible. The sums need to be done.
A process of discussion needs to start with the European strategic investment fund. If the State were interested, I would be more than happy to do the investigation on this and come up with the proposal. However, one can spend one's life on something that is going nowhere. If the State is not interested there is little point. If the State is interested in this, I think there is a significant opportunity and potentially extensive funds available.
I would be interested in seeing a proposal on that. The committee can look at it if Professor Hegarty would bring something forward. We are interested in anything that would assist students in getting where they want to get in their education.
Mr. Miley noted earlier that the report on the future funding of higher education will soon be published. He said that it needs to be ambitious and sustainable and to reflect the realities of the current challenges facing the sector. He spoke about SUSI and its reform. As a public representative I have many examples of issues with SUSI. One that still frustrates me seven or eight years later was the case of a student who was from a large family. His parents would have probably gone through second level education but definitely not third level education. The son going into third level was totally breaking the mould. He was going to Waterford. He was a fraction of a kilometre out of the catchment for SUSI. I happened to hear of the situation. The parents did not come to me looking for assistance; I went to them offering my assistance. After the most painful and ridiculous phone calls and conversations back and forward with SUSI, this guy is now fully qualified and working in a very professional job. Had I not been involved, he would not have got to where he got to.
Reform is probably an understatement of what is needed in SUSI. I think it needs to be torn asunder and re-examined. We need to consider what SUSI is actually doing. I think it is about giving people an opportunity. SUSI is financed by the State but you would swear it was coming out of their own pockets in cases like the one I have just described. I really feel that reform is a very light word to be using here. It really needs to be an in-depth reform of what SUSI is about. I will ask the three witnesses a really important question which I have asked before. What sort of reform is needed for SUSI?
Mr. Jim Miley:
I am grateful for the opportunity to appear today. It has been a very useful discussion overall. This issue is very close to my heart. I got a grant to go to college; I know what this is about. On the person the Chairman referred to who had a life opportunity because of an intervention he made, the story is encouraging but it is also frustrating that the intervention had to happen. I will go back to the point I made earlier. The needs analysis is absolutely critical to this. I do not go with the open-ended chequebook that opens the door to everyone. We have to be sensible and pragmatic. Coming in here with our proposals, we try to be that. We recognise that there is and always will be a limited budget available to the system. We have to change the rules.
There are some people going to college at the moment who are not getting enough support. There are others who are not able to go at all because they are not able to access the supports. The Chairman has illustrated one example of that. There have been some changes to SUSI in the more recent budget, introduced by the Minister, Deputy Harris. They are welcome but I do not think they will go far enough. This relates back to the student contribution issue. Our members have no opposition to a political decision being taken to reduce student contributions overall. The question we would ask is whether it is appropriate, just or fair that a person from a family that can afford to pay whatever level of fee - €1,000, €2,000, €3,000 or more - gets a free ride while somebody cannot afford at all to go to college cannot be supported. In our view there is only one answer to that question. We have to have a more refined needs analysis within the SUSI system. It is too crude at the moment.
Dr. Joseph Ryan:
I thank the Chairman. I echo what Mr. Miley said. We really appreciate this opportunity to feed into an important discussion. The reform is absolutely welcome. The Chairman's example shows how a small degree of flexibility can make a big difference to a life. It is repaid not just through that person but right through society. From my own experience as a registrar, if we went by a rule book all the time we would not get very far.
That brings me to the point of what we could do. We could employ more discretion and invest more discretion in the professionals on the ground. I watched what was happening in institutions. There is a massive body of experience and knowledge in all of our support and caring services throughout the system. They know the students. They read the students very well. If they had "fraction of a kilometre" discretion in everything they were dealing with, we would have a much more effective system. It can still be absolutely accounted for.
Professor Diarmuid Hegarty:
It is a great story about that student. It should be told more often. Well done, Chairman. You must have got great satisfaction in winning that battle. The one reform I would like to see in SUSI is for students to be treated equitably and fairly. Two students came before the committee during the Wake Up SUSI campaign. I do not think Deputy Kehoe was the Chairman then. One of their fathers was borrowing from the credit union to fund his fees in the private college he was going to. The other was being supported by the St. Vincent de Paul. Both of them would have qualified on a means test basis. It was absolutely unfair that they should have found themselves without access to those funds. They were looking for the same funds a student would get in the public sector.
I completely agree with the Chairman. If one looked at the student assistance fund and where it is helping students one would get some insight into the types of situations of which SUSI needs to be mindful and supportive. From looking at that, we might get the flexibility we are looking for in SUSI. That is a suggestion.
I would like to finish by thanking Senator Dolan and the Chairman for staying with us to the bitter end.
I have one further question. We are still playing catch-up after the financial downturn in 2008 and 2009. I am not sure if the witnesses have a figure for what is needed to really bring us up to where we need to be. When they look at our world counterparts, is there a perfect example where third level funding is fantastic and in the premier division? Is there an example we should be bringing here and implementing somehow? Mr. Miley spoke about philanthropic funding. Many universities would be in serious trouble if they did not get philanthropic funding. I am not sure if the TU sector, now that it is up and running, will be able to get the same philanthropic funding as the universities. Will there be the same appetite from those philanthropists out there?
I was listening to a radio station yesterday - I will not say which one, but it was not my own - and they were talking about the TUs as if they were not real universities. It is such a downgrading of students who will be attending those colleges in the future. It was almost a slap in the face to some students to hear the radio presenter say that they were not real universities. These students will be coming out with a parchment that will open huge doors for them in the future.
If we continue on the path that we are on of recovering from the downturn, we will never reach the point we want to get to. Where has the best example of philanthropy funding that we should implement here?
Mr. Jim Miley:
On the overall figure, Cassells said €600 million a year. There has been some bridging of that gap in the meantime, but we are saying it is of the order of €400 million to €450 million a year, and that needs to be done consistently between now and 2030. That core funding, and we have outlined the capital funding separately, gets us to a place that is comparable to a number of other smaller countries. I am not talking about comparing ourselves to Germany or anywhere else.
On the philanthropy issue, the one point I would make on that is that some of our members of done reasonably well on philanthropy funding and continue to try to push that, but it is very difficult. It does not come easy. It requires a lot of upfront investment from the institution to equip itself to be able to do it. There are tax instruments that need to be looked at by the State. Various proposals have been put forward to Government in this regard over the years. That huge sums of money are given to schools, colleges and various other causes in the US and elsewhere is not all because of the goodness of heart of citizens or wealthy people. It is because the tax structures incentivise it. We need to look seriously at upweighting our tax structures in that regard here.
Dr. Joseph Ryan:
I agree with Mr. Miley on the quantum. Obviously, chances are we might be stepping up towards that as a target figure. On the question of philanthropy, yes is the answer, but it would be a slow burn to build that. There would be much regional interest and interest from people who have gone abroad in the new TUs and as more and more of their graduates come through. However, it will take time to build up that sort of association. I remember being in UCD at the time it was starting its alumni network and it was a slow build.
On the reputation of the TUs, I fully agree with the Chair. Much work has gone in over many years. When you look at the impact of the old institutes of technology on the region and on sustainability, it is a very proud record. We have to educate those who are opinion formers and opinion influencers around this. As the Chair knows, the TUs have come through a peer-evaluated and very difficult passage to prove they are worthy of this. That the recent appointment of the chair is at the level it is at is a great signifier of the promise and the worth of these institutions.
Professor Diarmuid Hegarty:
I will make a point that Dr. Ryan cannot make, and it is about giving the Chair the answer that should be given to anybody who says these are not real universities. I had the privilege of sitting on the Higher Education and Training Awards Council, HETAC, for ten years, from its establishment in 1991 until 1999. On that council, I sat with presidents of many of what were then the institutes of technology. I saw them getting their delegated authority and developing further, and I was finally able to congratulate them on becoming universities, not when I was on HETAC, because my membership ended in 1999, but subsequently when I met them.
I also have taught accountancy to many of the people who are now lecturing in those things. I know the quality of their intellect. I remember teaching in National Institute for Higher Education, NIHE, Limerick back in the 1970s, and people would say it was not a real university. Would anybody say that of the University of Limerick now? Government should probably have thought of making the institutes of technology universities ten years ago. When they have been universities for ten years, you will not hear of this distinction. They have also proven themselves in terms of the international market with recruiting international students. Ask the international students if they are attending a real university and if they are going away with skills they need, particularly in the technological area. There are many answers to that very facile remark. I just wanted to put my answer on record.
That appointment yesterday of Dr. Patrick Prendergast is a fantastic appointment, as a former provost of Trinity College and proud Wexford man as well, which is most important.
I thank the witnesses for coming before us today. It has been a very productive meeting and we have got many views that will feed into our report at the conclusion of our hearings.