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Irish universities are running on fumes. Who can blame them for tapping tourists for cash?

Lack of funding forces colleges to charge heavily for accommodation, get in high-paying students from outside the EU and try to milk cash from features like the Book of Kells

No wonder Trinity College wanted to end the student protest. It earns about €17 million a year from the Book of Kells and while this is only about 4 per cent of total income, it is vital free cash in a tight funding picture. Much of Trinity’s income – from the State and student fees – is in effect recycled as expenditure in paying staff and providing education. While there is a cost, too, in running the tourist facilities around the Book of Kells, it must be a nice little earner. And, like all the third-level sector which is scrambling for cash, Trinity needs to pull in money from wherever it can.

The story of stretched finances in the third-level sector tells us much about the wider pinch points facing the Irish economy – and the longer-term cost of the financial crash of 2008. From housing, to energy and water provision, to services to the public in areas such as education and childcare, it is a familiar tale. Spending was slashed during the crash and the easy targets were chosen – investment and expenditure in areas which would not create too much political fuss. Then, as the economy recovered and the population rose strongly, Ireland found itself queuing for a living – for houses, places in childcare and education, for everything from creches to third-level, proper water services and so on.

Ireland is one of the few countries where spending has still not caught up with 2008 levels

Ireland was not unusual in making cuts during the crisis years – though as a bailout country the State was hit hard. But what was different here is that the sharp rise in the population in the meantime and the relatively younger age of the country added to the squeeze. There has been a response to all these issues in recent years, due in part to political pressure. But in some areas progress seems slow – and one of them is third-level education.

Policy in the last few years has been driven more by populist measures to cut the costs of access to third level, but little to address the funding shortfall facing the sector. The Government agreed in the 2022 Funding for the Future document that the sector required an extra €307 million a year in base funding but, in the two subsequent budgets, it has delivered just €100 million of this, much of which – the Irish University Association argues – has been eaten up by higher public pay costs under government deals. It is poor thinking to be providing extra supports to make it cheaper to get into third level while at the same time not funding the actual provision of services they receive adequately.


Given the flush state of the exchequer finances, is there a suspicion in Government and the Department of Education that the universities will not deliver the reforms in the 2022 document in return? Or is it just that this is not seen as a priority issue by enough voters who are understandably more bothered about the shortages of houses and creche places and the level of rents than they are with the student/lecturer ratio at third level or the funding of advanced research? Trinity provost Linda Doyle told students and staff to make more noise about this in a letter before the last budget. And perhaps the sector is worried that in his time as the minister responsible for the third-level sector, now Taoiseach Simon Harris talked a good game, but concentrated on delivering populist measures, like cutting student fees.

Research produced by the European University Association shows that, adjusting for inflation, Ireland was one of the few countries where spending had still not caught up with 2008 levels. Because of Ireland’s relatively young population and strong immigration, this is one of the few countries where the numbers going to third level continued to grow strongly, rising by 42 per cent between 2008 and 2021. And demand is expected to continue to increase until about 2031. Ireland, a country which sells itself to investors as an educated, research-driven economy, has left the sector running on fumes.

The research agenda, meanwhile, is facing some uncertainty as under new proposed legislation Science Foundation Ireland (SFI) is due to merge with the Irish Research Council to form Research Ireland. While we will have to see how this plays out, there is some disquiet in business circles about the apparent lack of focus on the building of links between enterprise and the third-level sector which were key to the SFI mission. In turn, SFI has been a key funder of research in third-level institutions and a bridge to help them access funding from big business.

Ireland, a country which sells itself to investors as an educated, research-driven economy, has left the sector running on fumes

Under the current funding model for universities, this is another vital support. Internationally, the third-level sector is largely funded by governments in countries like France and Germany and by business, rich graduates and stratospheric fees in the United States, where the big universities are effectively large corporations. Ireland has a kind of hybrid model, comprising direct State funding; indirect funding from the SFI and elsewhere for research, tuition charges; valuable fees from non-EU students; and other income – like rents for student accommodation, investment returns, donations and so on. For this reason, we should not be surprised that universities charge royally for accommodation, focus on getting in students from outside the EU at the expense of places for locals, try to maximise cash from opportunities like the Book of Kells, or twist and turn every way to try to get up the international rankings. It’s only business.

But the risk now is that the "real” level of education, not only for undergraduates but in vital areas of research and postgraduate education, starts to be slowly undermined. Ireland can still boast of high numbers internationally at third level and has real strengths in some key areas. But with all the signs of more competition for foreign direct investment from bigger countries in Europe, some longer-term strategic thinking – and funding – is now vital. Given the strength of the exchequer finances and the sizeable €1.5 billion accumulated surplus in the National Training Fund – a State fund into which employers pay for fund training and education – it is mystifying that this is not already happening. If the reason is that the Government does not trust the sector to deliver, then someone needs to bang the necessary heads together. And quickly.