Date Uploaded: 12/04/2016
Spending cuts have pushed some third-level college courses to “crisis point”, with serious implications for their future sustainability, according to a new report.
Quality in an Era of Diminishing Resources was commissioned by the State body responsible for quality assurance in higher education.
It is based on a review of the quality of teaching and learning in academic departments, schools and programmes in public higher education institutions.
The report highlights issues of considerable concern, including the cumulative effects of reduced funding, lower staff numbers, increased teaching burdens and the casualisation of staffing and promotion limitations.
“These issues have particular effects on early career staff and the capacity of those remaining in post to develop, maintain and grow research careers,” the report states.
“The negative impact of limited funding available to maintain, enhance and develop the learning environment through facilities and equipment was also evident,” it continues.
“What is striking is the general impression from some reports that some units have reached a ‘crisis point’ where continued cuts/reductions may have serious and irretrievable implications for their future sustainability.”
The report was commissioned by Quality and Qualifications Ireland, the State body responsible for quality assurance in further and higher education.
It was written by Dr Claire Carne, former head of enhancement at the Scotland office of the Quality Assurance Agency for Higher Education.
It is based on an analysis of the statutory institution-led quality review reports produced by the public higher education institutions in Ireland from 2008-2015.
Dr Carne’s report points out that it might not be unusual to see an occasional reference in peer review reports to the impact of limited resources on the quality of learning and teaching.
However, she found the level and amount of referencing to resource issues across a number of reports was significant.
The report states that European standards and guidelines for successful provision of quality learning environments in higher education are important benchmarks in assessing the standing of higher education in Ireland.
These guidelines vary from physical resources, such as libraries, study facilities and IT infrastructure, to human support in the form of tutors, counsellors and other advisers.
“Given the evidence from this sample of reports, it would appear that a number of units would be challenged by these guidelines and as such this should be a matter of concern,” the report states.
Another reference point is key indicators for international comparison rankings of universities and colleges, which include staff, student ratios, institutional income and research productivity.
However, Dr Carne said Irish colleges had responded well by plugging funding gaps linked to a decline in State resources.
“It is clear from the reports that Irish higher education institutions – in spite of continual challenges – are not complacent and have risen to the continual challenge by diversifying and generating income through research and through attracting international students,” the report states.
“The latter brings its own challenge as to compete in the global market of higher education, higher education institutions need to offer a learning and teaching environment and resources that are attractive in a highly competitive and ‘rankings’ driven market.”
While the report provided evidence of a system perceived to be “at crisis”, Dr Carne found it was “commendable and important” that the emphasis placed on the student learning experience and the commitment of staff has continued in spite of increasing pressures.
This has minimised the impact on students, she said.
“However, it is very clear that this commitment and resilience is not sustainable for the long-term,” she said.
Journalist: Carl O'Brien