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Educational News - Third level education system in danger of being ‘stressed to the point of breaking’

Date Uploaded: 08/02/2016

Third level education system - Outgoing chairman of Higher Education Authority says funding urgently required


Underfunding of higher education is in danger of “stressing the system to the point of breaking”, according to the outgoing chairman of the Higher Education Authority.

John Hennessy, who has just completed five years as chair of the organisation, said rising student numbers, cuts to funding and falling academic staff posed a threat to the quality of graduates.

While student number are up about 20 per cent since the economic crash, public funding for higher education has fallen by almost 30 per cent over the same period.

“There are some great people in government, but many are ultra-conservative and short-term in their thinking,” Mr Hennessy said. “This [underfunding] is stressing the system to the point of breaking.”

He also said there was a risk that restrictions on the hiring of academic staff were at risk of harming the quality of Irish graduates at a time of a “global war on talent.”

“There is a risk – given what we’re investing per student – that we are compromising quality. It’s hard to measure. But if others are spending more, and we’re falling down the scales, something is happening.

“If you continue to underfund growth, something will break. You don’t know where. People are going to great lengths to maintain what’s there.”

Mr Hennessy said an expert group report on the future funding of third level education – due to be completed shortly – was long overdue.

“It seems to have been timed to avoid a general election, or maybe I’m being cynical. Every year that passes we are starting from a worse position,” Mr Hennessy said.

“The Government cannot afford to keeping putting these decisions off. It’s urgent, it’s a priority and it’s important.”

Despite underfunding, he said universities, colleges and institutes of technology have responded well to the challenges of recent years.

He said there have been many successful efficiency reforms and mergers, while the sector has responded well to meet the skills needs of different parts of industry. Policymakers should now plan for reforms to ensure our higher- education system is fit for purpose for the next 20 or 30 years.

The further-education sector should be brought together with higher education under the umbrella of “tertiary education”, Mr Hennessy said.

Mr Hennessy, a former managing director of Ericsson Ireland, said while there had been a big focus on Stem subjects [science, technology, engineering, maths], a new fusion of these with the arts could give Ireland an edge internationally.

“When you fuse hard science and soft science you get better leadership,” he said. “I’m an engineer. But I got my leadership skills in the arts. And we have a real deficit of leadership.”


Journalist: Carl O'Brien