Calls from the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform (PER) to increase third level fees by at least €1,000 appear unjustified when recent university figures are taken into account.
University College Dublin (UCD), Ireland’s largest university, reported a surplus of over €20 million for the year ending September 2016, an increase of €2.3 million from 2015.
Furthermore, UCD experienced a €13 million rise in academic fees paid over the course of the year, with the figure rising to €211 million, an increase of 6.5 percent.
What is telling, however, is the figure for state grants and funding. In 2006, that figure stood at over €120 million and was the college’s main source of income, eclipsing academic fees by some €15 million. Ten years on, however, that figure had dwindled to €60 million, less than half of what it was a decade ago.
It is much the same story for DIT and DCU, two of Dublin’s largest colleges. Trinity college, on the other hand, has experienced budget deficits since the economic crash of 2008, but its finances have vastly improved over the past years.
A deficit that stood at €22.5 million in 2013, now stands at €9.4 million. Trinity, like UCD, has experienced drastic cuts to state funding and has seen a 25 percent decrease since 2012 (€58 million to €44 million).
Like UCD, Trinity College has also experienced a huge increase in academic fees, overseeing a 17.5 percent rise since 2012 (€113 million to €133 million).
Both of the above changes are a direct result of the economic downturn; funding for universities was cut annually during the recession, while academic fees were controversially imposed across the board at €3,000.
The Department of Public Expenditure’s newest proposals have been met with widespread resistance from the student body, with protests and demonstrations taking place at the beginning of this academic year and it is easy to see why.
The department argues that there is a funding shortfall for third level education in Ireland, but there only is a shortfall in funding because of cuts implemented by various governments since the recession.
Academic fees are not the issue. According to the Central Statistics Office (CSO), there are now 180,000 full time third level students in the country along with 39,000 part-time students, more than there ever has been. Colleges, therefore, have never taken in more money from academic fees than they do at present.
The department estimates that 50 percent of students are either totally or somewhat exempt from paying college fees owing to family income levels. Even so, a €1,000 increase to academic fees would roughly yield an additional €110 million annually for Irish colleges.
Government funding is badly needed, rather than an increase in student fees, and Budget 2018 saw the department pledge an extra €47.5 million to third level funding. An awful lot more is needed, UCD’s funding alone has been cut by more than that in the past decade, but it is a start at the very least.
The Budget also pledged to increase funding by €310 million by 2021, but the government were criticised for an “absence of any specific direct funding to support third level education” by the Irish Federation of University Teachers.
Members of the opposition, including Labour’s Aodhán O Ríordáin, have criticised the “precious little efforts” made by the government to address the funding problem in third level education.
Fine Gael gleefully pointed out during the Rugby World Cup in 2015 that Ireland had the fastest growing economy of any of the nations competing in the tournament. Perhaps it is time they start acting like that is the case and giving back to the Irish taxpayer.
By Shane O’Brien