Tuesday, 26 April 2022
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Further and Higher Education
I thank the Minister of State for coming in to address this issue. We are coming up to the seventh anniversary of the publication of the Cassells report, which outlined the crisis facing higher education funding at that time. A number of options were presented in that report. Three options were presented very clearly to the Government, namely, that there be a dramatic increase in public funding, that the fee model be retained, or that we look at the model of income-contingent loans. It is fair to say the Government continued to kick the can down the road, referring the report to an Oireachtas committee and then to the European Commission for its observations. Commitments were given that the European Commission report would be published by now but that has not happened. The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, committed that 2021 would be the year higher education funding would finally be resolved. Clearly, that has not happened. This Government realises the potential of higher education. That is why a new Department was created. It must be acknowledged that some additional funding, on both the capital and current side, has been put into higher education. However, these are sticking plaster solutions. The system is in crisis. Time and again we have heard from the universities and the new technological universities - the former institutes of technology - about the problems they are facing and the impact these things can have on the quality of teaching and research and, in particular, support services for students. There has been a continuous and rapid expansion in higher education over the last number of years. That is the right thing to do because this country's future will be based on talent and investing in talent. We are short-changing the higher education system because we are failing to address the funding issue.
I note with concern that the Minister has been talking about cutting student fees. In an ideal world we would all like student fees to be cut, but my worry is that the commensurate amount of money that will be necessary as a result of the cut to student fees will not be made available to the higher education institutions. Whenever any of the representative groups come before the Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, I ask them where priority funding should be invested. They talk about investment in core funding and the SUSI grant scheme, as well as radical reform of the SUSI grant scheme.
We cannot wait any longer. This can has been continually kicked down the road. This country's reputation is now at stake. In fact, Tony Donohoe of IBEC told the education committee that we have already gone beyond the tipping point. I do not necessarily expect the report from the European Commission on the recommendations of the Cassells report to tell us much more than we already know. We know higher education is in a state of crisis. We know there has been an expectation on the institutions to continue to do more without the necessary additional resources. Respectfully, I am worried the Government does not appreciate the full scale of the crisis. I ask for clear dates for the publication of the European Commission's report and an answer with regard to the Government's strategy for the future funding of higher education.
We should thank the Deputy for raising this matter. The 2016 expert group report, Investing in National Ambition: A Strategy for Funding Higher Education, confirmed that higher education made a significant positive contribution to the development of individuals, employers, society and the State. It concluded that the approach to funding at the time was unsustainable and that substantial increases in investment in higher education needed to be made to ensure that the sector could remain viable and provide capacity to meet the major increase in student demand that was projected up to 2030.
Since 2015, my Department has been working hard to deliver a significant programme of reinvestment in higher education. In that period, current public expenditure allocated to the higher education sector has increased by more than €500 million, or almost 40%. In 2022, this allocation will be in excess of €2 billion, including capital investment in the order of €2.4 billion. Funding and policy developments in recent budgets have taken significant steps to address the funding needs of the sector. Most notably, and in line with a recommendation of the Cassells report, a new stream of employer funding was introduced upon review of the National Training Fund. This level of investment responded to demographic pressures and underpinned a range of initiatives in the sector, including a substantial investment in the evolution of technological universities and significant skill-enhancing opportunities for individuals, sectors and regions. My Department is also continuing to address the demographic pressures on the sector through the provision of additional places in further and higher education, and in budget 2022, we secured additional funding for sectoral pensions. This significant allocation of public resources is a clear demonstration of the Government's commitment to meeting the funding needs of the higher education sector in order to realise more fully its potential to contribute to economy and societal priorities that are central to the country's long-term sustainability.
Regarding the ongoing work on implementing the recommendation of the Cassells report, the development of a sustainable funding model for higher education is essential, in light of the credibility of higher education and of our progress as a country. My Department's statement of strategy, published in March 2021, contained a commitment to putting in place a sustainable funding model for higher education. In this context, I was encouraged by the completion of a comprehensive economic evaluation of the funding options presented in the report of the Expert Group on Future Funding of Higher Education, as supported under the European Commission's Directorate-General for Structural Reform Support, DG REFORM, programme. The aim of this review was to investigate methods of increasing the sustainability of higher and further education provision, including an examination on the funding options.
On 9 December, a Cabinet committee on economic recovery approved sending the Commission's review to the Cabinet and recommended that the Government note: the contents of the comprehensive independent economic evaluation of the funding options originally presented in the 2016 report and now detailed in a report on increasing the sustainability of higher and further education provision in Ireland, which was funded through the DG REFORM programme; the confirmation by the detailed analysis undertaken in the report of the existence of a significant shortfall in funding for higher education necessary for a high-performing, high-quality higher education system to underpin the achievement of Ireland's economic and social objectives and ambition; and the key recommendations contained in the evaluation report, including that a sustainable model of financing for the higher education system should be prioritised to support the future development of the higher education and further education and training systems in meeting the economy's human capital and skills needs. There were a number of other points to note but since I am running out of time, I will skip them.
I am pleased to inform the Senator that the Cabinet is today considering both the DG REFORM review and my Department's response to it. The Senator is on the money today.
I appreciate the Minister of State's comments. The timing of this matter is opportune but, with respect, this has been a seven-year process. As the Minister of State mentioned, the urgency of this situation was realised when the Cassells report was published, yet nothing has really happened bar kicking it to a committee and DG REFORM and a series of statements. I welcome that the Cabinet is considering the matter, but what is the Cabinet going to do about it? If we are serious about investing in higher education and research, we need a sustainable model of funding.We cannot continue to talk about it in the way that we have been talking about it. We need to set out a very clear strategy. I do not believe that we need any more reports. We have had loads of reports on the crisis facing higher education and research funding. We now need to get answers. On foot of the Cabinet discussions earlier, when can we hear what actions the Government is going to take?
The Senator will appreciate that I am not in Cabinet and, therefore, I cannot specifically speak to when that will happen but it is fair to say that it is a key priority of the Department I am assigned to. He will be aware of that. It is a key commitment within the programme for Government. It is a priority for the Fianna Fáil Party, the Fine Gael Party and the Green Party. Its journey is taking longer than we all expected and wanted it to take. However, today it has moved on significantly. There is, to borrow a phrase that the Senator and I will understand, a lot done but more to do.
I thank the Minister of State and Senator Byrne. We will move on to Senator Ahearn's Commencement matter, which relates to human rights defenders. We are expecting the Minister to come to the House shortly so we will suspend until then.