Alternatives to higher education needed, expert group advises

Number in universities and institutes of technology set to grow by 30 per cent

Alternatives to higher education must be developed for school leavers to alleviate the financial pressure on universities and institutes of technology, the chair of a third-level expert group has said.

Peter Cassells told an Oireachtas committee the demand for higher education was set to grow by 30 per cent in the next decade.

From both a funding view and a “view of what’s right”, other options should be available to school leavers in area such as further education and apprenticeships, he said.

“We have not been asked to look at apprenticeships but in looking at funding requirements we need to be able to comment on that.”


Mr Cassells said the options for school leavers “should be beyond traditional apprenticeships”, citing the example of Denmark where industrial degrees were offered alongside academic degrees.

He was addressing the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education and Social Protection Wednesday on the work of the expert group to date.

The body, set up by former minister Ruairí Quinn, is due to report by the end of the year on how best to fund an under-strain higher education system in the future.

He noted the Higher Education Authority (HEA) had cited "a high and growing level of risk that significant unfunded expansion in numbers participating in higher education will damage the quality of provision".

While he would not pre-empt the findings of the group, it had identified a need for greater investment in “high quality career guidance and student supports” at third-level. A “key concern” identified was the quality of internships and related employability measures.

Mr Cassells stressed that technology would not be the panacea for higher education’s financial woes.

While there was an impression e-learning and MOOCs (massive open online courses) would help to reduce the cost of higher education, discussions with universities and institutes of technology made clear that these “will actually require very significant investment”.

On the possibility of introducing a student loans system to fund third-level, he said the group was looking at a variety of models including those used in Australia and the UK, while also examining the feasibility of the sector being wholly public funded.

“The status quo of increasing numbers without increasing resources or making better use of existing resources is not an option for the future,” he said.

While the group had been asked to produce “options” for the Minister, “it will be as close to recommendations that you can get without us declaring them as recommendations”.

There was criticism expressed by some committee members about the manner in which the group had been created after a previous investigation of the issue by the HEA was shelved by Mr Quinn.

“It might have made more sense to put your group to work three to four years ago,” said Fianna Fáil education spokesman Charlie McConalogue.

Independent Senator Marie-Louise O’Donnell urged the group to tackle the “ridiculous” separation between higher education and apprenticeships.

She also questioned the decision to give bonus points to Maths in the Leaving Cert “but nothing to music or the visual arts”, saying this was creating a hierarchy of subjects in the education system.

Further evidence of stains within the higher education system emerged from Trinity College Dublin this week where the head of the department of geography Prof Peter Coxon emailed third-year students urging them to protest against the "incredible erosion of our ability to teach whole sections" of the degree.

Prof Coxon, who also sits on the college's finance committee and board, told TCD's University Times: "I feel very sorry for the undergraduates… because they came in to study a subject and effectively we've been decimated by the loss of staff."

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys

Joe Humphreys is an Assistant News Editor at The Irish Times and writer of the Unthinkable philosophy column