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'The Cinderella sector' of Irish education needs extra funding just as badly as our top universities

“Even in high-tech companies you need non-graduate staff to fill a lot of roles within the company.”

Image: Shutterstock/Vincent MacNamara

AFTER THE QS World University Rankings showed Ireland’s universities’ poor performance on a global level, Mike Jennings, the general secretary of the Irish Federation Teachers’ Union, called on the government earlier to this week to replenish the €200 million that has been cut from higher education since the beginning of the recession.

But Ireland’s top universities aren’t the only educational institutions that are in need of more funding from the government.

Further Education (FE) colleges have also suffered some serious cut-backs to their staff and budgets - one FE college principal told TheJournal.ie that he’s “sick to my back teeth” of economists questioning the value of investment in Further Education.

Sometimes dubbed ‘the Cinderella sector’ of Irish education, Further Education courses are available in almost every county, offering courses from a year to four years in length. Although some courses are stand alone training and education programmes, others are used as a stepping stone into Higher Education courses.

Despite no nationwide strategy in place for Further Education colleges before 2013, they have continued growing indigenously, with over 22,000 courses available, a lot of which aren’t available in Higher Education – such as hairdressing, animal grooming and apprenticeships.

Rory O’Sullivan, principal of Killester College of Further Education Dublin, says that the industry has suffered “significant cuts in staffing over the past 7-8 years and similar cuts in resources”.

The greatest distinction between colleges and higher level universities, says O’Sullivan, is that Further Education colleges are “100% funded by the government”, meaning that any cuts by the government seriously impact colleges’ capabilities.

However, Brian Lucey, economist and professor at Trinity College Dublin, says that although he agrees that funding is needed across the education board, he completely refutes the idea that funding should be spread out across all institutions.

The Irish system is that everybody gets something, and that’s fine, and that’s egalitarian and all that. But if we truly want world-class education… then you’re not going to do it by spreading small dollops across every single sector. You’re going to have to pick some winners.

He said that if top colleges got this money, it would be used to bring the teacher-pupil ratio down from the 1:23 it’s at currently, and closer to the recommended 1:17.

‘Sick to my back teeth’

O’Sullivan, who has worked in FE colleges for 23 years, says that you’d be hard-pressed finding someone in ‘the Cinderella sector’ who doesn’t think it needs more funding.

I’m sick to my back teeth of economists making comments like that, when the bulk of the labour market is made up of sub-degree level employees.
Even in high-tech companies you need non-graduate staff to fill a lot of roles within the company.

He goes on to say that there are courses offered through Further Education that just aren’t available through Third Level – such as hairdressing, animal grooming and apprenticeships.

No one has questioned whether we even need 60% of the workforce to be graduates – remember that Ireland is in the top three of over-educated work forces in Europe.

O’Sullivan, who has worked in the Further Education sector for 32 years, says that these courses offer another avenue for students, and give them a chance to try out a subject for a year, before committing to them fully.

I’m not critical of Higher Education, in fact there is a strong link between Further Education and Higher Education courses. But I am critical of distorting the funding to top universities.

Mike Jennings also disputes that funding should be allocated because of reputation, and says that funding is needed across every part of the Irish education sector and it’s not an either-or issue.

“I think one university would find it unfair if another were given more funding because they received a higher ranking.”

O’Sullivan says that if funding were increased for Further Education colleges, the money would go towards increasing staff numbers and restructuring – to take the colleges out of the post-primary school structure that they’re currently in.

We’re on the road to it, but not there yet.

Read: Irish colleges fall down in international rankings

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