‘Opportunity has been missed’ in higher education

The first Budget from the country’s first dedicated Department of Further and Higher Education evoked a mixed reaction, with student leaders claiming it ignored barriers preventing access to college in favour of piecemeal one-off funding.

There was a general welcome for the focus it put on higher education, and some praise for the commitment minister Simon Harris is bringing to the role, but there was also criticism of “missed opportunities”.

The €3.3bn 2021 spend includes €50m to be paid directly to about 200,000 full-time students this year – €250 each – to help soften the Covid-19 financial blow.

Union of Students in Ireland (USI) president Lorna Fitzpatrick welcomed it, but said the Government failed to address the “underlying problem – that students face the highest fees in the EU”.

Other commitments include:

:: Retaining almost 2,300 college places created this year – and adding a further 2,700;

:: Review of the SUSI grant scheme;

:: Fee grants for post-graduate students to increase from €2,000 to €3,500 and income threshold eligibility to increase from €31,500 to €54,240;

:: 200 more disadvantaged students to benefit from extra €1.5m in the 1916 Bursary Fund, to encourage participation in higher education;

:: €3,000 incentive for employers to take on apprentices extended to June;

:: €15m for a higher education minor works scheme;

:: €12m to re-skill and upskill people affected by the pandemic;

:: New retrofitting training scheme and climate action upskilling scheme;

:: 50,000 further education and training places;

:: €30m to support research.

The student fees issue is linked to the wider question of higher education funding and several key stakeholders, including USI, expressed concern the Budget did not address that.

An economic evaluation of the funding options, set out in the 2016 Cassells Report, is due soon and minister Simon Harris has committed to dealing with it in 2021.

The Irish Universities Association (IUA) welcomed “positives” – including €50m to support students, extra college places and €120m for upskilling – but Director General Jim Miley said “the time to address the structural underfunding of the sector is well past”.

“The IUA believe more definitive step could have been taken to address the underlying funding deficiencies.”

Mr Miley said the Budget represented a “missed opportunity for real change” in areas such as its proposal for a multi-annual Green Campus Infrastructure Fund and its calls for a step-change in research investment.

The Technological Higher Education Association (THEA), representing institutes of technology and TU Dublin also welcomed the commitments made, but CEO Dr Joseph Ryan regretted “that the Covid-19 crisis has forced a further deferral of the commitment to address higher education funding”.

Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT) general secretary, Joan Donegan, welcomed the focus on higher education, but said “after a decade of neglect, the sector must be included centrally in the Recovery Fund next year to allow a return to sustainable education”.

Irish Independent

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