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More students, less funding: Higher education funding peaked in 1990s and has never been matched

16 December 2019 – A new historical study of higher education in Ireland shows how the sector prospered when there was cross-party political consensus on the value of education as a public good.

John WalshDr John Walsh, The Cultures, Academic Values in Education (CAVE) Centre, at Trinity’s School of Education is the author of the first study of its kind looking at the development of higher education in Ireland. Higher Education in Ireland, 1922-2016 Politics, Policy and Power – A history of higher education in the Irish State was recently launched in the Trinity Long Room Hub by Professor Jane Ohlmeyer, Director of the Trinity Long Room Hub and Dr Aidan Seery, Senior Tutor at Trinity College Dublin.

According to its author Dr Walsh, funding for higher education in Ireland was highest in the 1990s, and started to decline in the early 2000s, with a drastic reduction in public funding in the last decade. With a narrower focus on investment purely for economic reasons, the higher education system has experienced greater difficulties.

Historical study

While there are many studies carried out on specific areas of higher education policy including access to education, primary and post-primary education, there has been very little written about the historical development of higher education in Ireland in the 20th century, says Dr Walsh. John Walsh Quote 1

In the mid-twentieth century, the higher education system in Ireland changed dramatically. “There was a collection of disparate higher education institutions in the early-twentieth century: universities, technical schools and teacher training colleges. There was no coherent higher education system”, explains Dr Walsh. While early in the twentieth century, “higher education was overwhelmingly conflated with the university”, the development of the regional technical colleges, the emergence of the national institutions of higher education and the upgrading of teacher training to university level radically changed the higher education sector in Ireland. 

The emergence of a modern higher education system was, in part, driven by the social demand for post-primary education that fed through to higher education, Dr Walsh says.

“Free post-primary education had an impact on third level because one of the elements in the free post-primary package was the first third-level higher education grants.”

Almost 60% of school-leavers (18-20 year-olds) are now going into higher education. “Higher education is no longer an elite system, or even a mass system – it’s effectively the norm for a majority of school-leavers and their families. Yet there are still major inequalities in participation between socio-economic groups (SEGs) and sectoral disparities where entrants from traditionally under-represented groups are still more likely to go to Institutes of Technology than universities.’

Exploring the key holders of power in the sector historically, Dr Walsh points to the influence of the Catholic Church on the National University of Ireland. He examines the changes in the balance of power between the Irish State, academic elites and the Church throughout the twentieth century, but doesn’t underplay the international context which drove many significant changes in Ireland’s higher education approach.

International Agenda

Although Dr Walsh describes the first international influence in the Irish higher education system as the Catholic Church, he identifies  “a radical change in government policy that was shaped by the wider reorientation of economic policy from protectionism to free trade” in the early 1960s and “the emergence of theories of human capital formation and international thinking shaped by the Cold War.”

According to Dr Walsh, the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) which was set up in the early 1960s, was particularly instrumental in articulating how developed western countries should distinguish themselves from the Soviet bloc.

“One of the issues they identified as being crucial in global competition between the West and the Communist bloc was the successful development of education, science and technology. They thought that was important in competing economically with the Soviet bloc but also crucial to showcase how successful societal development was facilitated through the western democratic and capitalist system.  Investment in education was positioned as an investment in human capital.”

In Ireland political ideology was receptive to facilitating these ideas, Dr Walsh comments. “There was a combination of social democratic and egalitarian ideas around opening up the system, democratising the system; this included more participation by women, and more attention to traditionally under-represented socio-economic groups.  This was combined with a strong commitment to developing a more highly qualified labour force. The economic and the social justice dimension came together, and that functioned as a very powerful force to promote investment in higher education.”

Globalisation has also had a major impact over the past 20 years, Dr Walsh outlines, by sharpening the competitive focus of higher education institutions. “Institutions have more of an economic mission, they compete with each other, they compete for staff and resources and they do that on an international playing field.” This is where the rankings have come to the fore in terms of relevance for institutions. Although the rankings have faced some criticism and are flawed, Dr Walsh says they reflect the process of internationalisation and whatever their limitations are used as a benchmark by colleges and students outside Ireland. “It would be better if the measurements were more holistic and took more account of teaching and learning. But rankings are not the source of the problem – the source of the problem is the lack of political consensus around education as a public good and the illusion that more can be done with less indefinitely.”

Funding Crisis

Although it is a historical study, Dr Walsh argues that historical analysis is also a way to shed light on contemporary policy in higher education. He explains that higher education has gone through phases of crisis from the crisis of underfunding in the 1950s to the crisis in the 1980s, which was both due to a recession and ballooning student numbers. Irish higher education  is currently going through another phase of crisis, which began in 2008 during the most recent recession of the Irish economy and has no obvious end point.

In fact, funding of higher education in Ireland has levelled off since the 1990s, never matching this peak in supporting the system. At a time when there are more students than ever pursuing higher education (over 200,000 students), the system is unable to cope with the increasing demands it must meet with inadequate resources, Dr Walsh argues.

John Walsh Quote 2“Between the 1960s and 1990s, the idea of investment of higher education as an investment in the wider society and economy was very powerful and it functioned to promote policy change, but it also drove increased funding of the system. Over the last 20 years, the rationale for state intervention in education is now almost entirely economic; it’s centred around the knowledge-based economy and applied research for economic development. There is a rhetoric of doing more with less and that has been much less effective in acting as a rationale for investment in higher education – in fact it has done the opposite, leading to a dramatic decline in the total resources dedicated to higher education.”

Although universities have been able to generate more private and philanthropic funding, the funding gap has never been filled.

“Even considering philanthropic funding, over a seven-year period up to 2015 as Pat Clancy pointed out there was a decline of 22% in the core funding of higher education, which included public sources and student fees - and that’s despite increased numbers of international students and major expansion generally. Overall based on the HEA’s own figures, state funding of higher education was reduced by 38% between 2009 and 2016, even as student numbers increased by 34,000.”

The discourse adopted by policy makers has tended to encourage restructuring of universities to make them more “efficient”, but these have generated mixed results, and significant internal conflict, Dr Walsh argues.
“The state has been willing to support specific initiatives, especially involving restructuring of institutions, , but it has performed poorly in terms of maintaining essential core funding of research and teaching across the board.”

At a time when rhetoric around higher education contributing to the knowledge economy has escalated, the absence of an integrated strategy for higher education in Ireland is “striking”, according to Dr Walsh.

“There are ambitious government objectives: world class research, widening participation, teaching and learning that promotes critical thinking - but there’s very limited willingness to finance higher education, to fulfil such an  ever-increasing range of policy objectives.”

Paradoxically, Dr Walsh concludes, “higher education in Ireland prospered when the motivation for supporting higher education was not solely economic – but also social and political.”

Higher Education in Ireland, 1922–2016: Politics, Policy and Power—A History of Higher Education in the Irish State is published by Palgrave Macmillan.

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