We Must Defend Our Universities

A report by Grant Thornton on the Irish university system is flawed. It sees higher education as something to be subjected to narrow profit interests rather than as a public good, writes Ronnie Munck of Defend the Irish University

Defend the Irish University, represents the interests of those who teach, research and work in higher education. Our Charter (defendtheuniversity.ie) has gathered over 1,000 signatories, and we are now working closely with the Union of Students in Ireland in pursuit of a higher education system that is recognised as a public good and which cannot and should not be subjected to narrow market and private profit interests.

Grant Thornton is an assurance, tax and advisory firm with a declared Irish revenue of $63 million and a global revenue of $3.8 billion. It claims to be ” the fastest growing firm in Ireland”. They are a big player in business consultancy and have  taken it upon themselves to produce a series of reports on the state of higher education in the Republic, similar to exercises carried out by them in the UK .

However, their first report on the financial health of  Irish Higher Level Institutions  paints a sorry picture, and one of which higher education staff in the frontline are all too well aware. Between 2007 and 2011 student numbers across the sector rose by 26% while the State grant felt by 25%. We might also add that staff income dropped by more than 20% over the same period, and numbers were reduced through the Employment Control Framework.

Looking to the future, student numbers are forecast to grow by more than 25% by 2030. In terms of its contribution, the State grant has declined from 40% of the total in 2007 to 25% in 2011. The sector has reached an inflection point, argues the report, or what the rest of us would call a crisis.

This report does not even vaguely understand that education is, in fact, a public good. It tells us that stripped of non-profitable courses and with its main functions outsourced it might be seen as a sector in which private equity firms would be interested. Within higher education we now see the emergence of closely integrated economic, political and State interests coming together behind this agenda. However the stark reality is that the crisis faced by higher education will simply not be solved by a dollop of private equity involvement. No amount of private colleges, on-line or otherwise, can substitute for the massive infrastructure and long history of the higher education system.

The time is clearly now ripe to present an alternative to the market non-solution presented by the  Grant Thornton report . Certainly, neither higher education staff nor students should, or can, be asked to suffer any further. Staff should not be subject to any further deterioration in their pay and conditions. The current moves towards ever greater casualisation of staff need to be halted.

As to students they already pay a very high charge (€3,000 per student) which places an unsustainable burden on many households. Current discussions around student loans should be halted and a cap placed on all charges. Higher education is a public good and society at large needs to have a greater say in the future. A broad social engagement with the future of higher education could produce a momentum towards adequate funding for a higher education system geared towards social needs and not private profit.

Ronnie Munck is a lecturer in DCU and a member of the DCU SIPTU Section Committee