Investing in Further and Higher Education - Macdara Doyle

2 Sep 2020

Third level

If there have been any positive outcomes from the public health emergency, and there are precious few, perhaps one of the clearest is the manner in which it has reinforced the value and centrality of education to any society that thinks of itself as decent. By extension, the emergency - particularly during the earlier lockdown phase - also threw into very sharp relief the absolutely essential role played by staff at all levels across the sector, in ensuring the continued functioning of the education system and in delivering continuity of learning. I don’t think the value of that contribution can in any way be underestimated.

Just as our capacity to provide care for those affected by Covid 19 said something about our society - and we would acknowledge your very central and positive role in that, Minister - the priority given to education and the response of staff at all levels was also a very positive reflection of our values.

And as we turn now to the task of rebuilding, of imagining what post-pandemic Ireland might look like, once again education assumes an essential and vital role. 

Even before the public health emergency our education system and society were facing two critical and interlinked challenges: 

Firstly, the transition to a lower-carbon economy - one which we are already struggling and failing to get to grips with. 

Secondly, the impact of digital technology and automation. 

The recent NESC report - Addressing Employment Vulnerability as Part of a Just Transition - set out the scale of those challenges and their likely transformative impact on the world of work and on how we live. The unwritten but very clear concern that emerged from the report was of a systemic failure to grasp the magnitude of what lies ahead and of a corresponding institutional unpreparedness.

However, that report also clearly flagged what it saw as a crucial and driving role for our Further & Higher Education sector in this process. Taken in conjunction with the task of rebuilding post-pandemic, it is now abundantly clear that very deep demands will be made of the Sector in both the immediate and the longer term. And that requires a Further & Higher Education sector that is actually fit for purpose.

I am not sure anyone could plausibly argue that this is the case at the moment. In that context, we welcomed the establishment of the new Department of Higher and Further Education as a signal of intent in that regard.In May we proposed the establishment of a Forum for the sector, a proposal that has now been endorsed by all parties.

The role of the Forum as we see it is to facilitate a new form of structured engagement in the sector - on the basis of social dialogue - one which will help develop an agreed vision on the wider role and function of the Further & Higher Education system.

That agreed vision is noticeably absent at present but it is an essential prerequisite to the longer-term sustainability of a system that must be accessible, inclusive, affordable and provided as a public service. But any such vision it is entirely meaningless without the appropriate funding.
It is almost five years since the Cassells Report was published. Officially titled Investing in National Ambition the failure to act on its key funding recommendations tells its own story on that score.

In the same year that the Cassells Report was published - 2016 - our spending per full time equivalent student at Third Level was just 61.2% of the average across a range of comparator countries (figures from Eurostat). 

Within the last few days, the Dail’s own Parliamentary Budget Office has revealed that funding per student in 2018/2019 (full time, part-time, remote, and FETAC) was 44% lower than in 2008.

So while student intake has risen, funding has literally gone into reverse.

The Cassells report was predicated on achieving a staff-student ratio of 14:1 by 2030. It currently stands at 20:1 approximately the same level as in 2015 and is among the worst in the OECD.

The deficit in funding has a corrosive impact on the sector at all levels. It creates an almost enforced dependency on private income for many institutions, something which is not compatible with education as a public good - as opposed to a private concern.

It also harms accessibility and affordability for those who want to avail of further and higher education and it impairs the sector’s capacity to deliver high-quality learning. It also put enormous downward pressure on conditions of employment.

To date there has been very little in-depth research on the nature and extent of precarious and insecure work across the sector - perhaps this is something the new Forum could address? - but there was one telling figure contained in a recent CSO Labour Force Survey.

In 2008, some 5.5% of staff at Third Level engaged in unpaid overtime. By 2018 that figure had risen almost fivefold to 24.5%. Of itself, this is not conclusive proof. However, it is strongly indicative of a working environment that is subject to serious pressure and is highly insecure.

This key issue must be addressed if we are to develop that sustainable model for the future, to create clear career pathways for staff and ensure Decent Work becomes the hallmark of our Further and Higher Education Sector.

Finally, could I just address an issue that has arisen in relation of the Reopening of the Sector that is currently underway. Unfortunately there now appears to be a considerable divergence between institutions in terms of how the Guidelines are being interpreted and implemented.

This is creating uncertainty among staff and I know one affiliate has already raised this matter directly with the Minister.

The purpose of the Guidelines was to create certainty by ensuring a level of uniformity and coherence across the sector. We need to act now while there is still time to ensure that this is the case.

 

Macdara Doyle, ICTU Campaigns Officer