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Saturday 30 September 2023 Dublin: 9°C
What value are we putting on higher education?
Demand for education expanded during the crisis and it looks set to grow further. We must respond proactively.

IRELAND IS UNIQUE in Europe: we have a large, growing and highly educated population of young people. Demand for education expanded during the crisis and it looks set to grow further. There are now 210,000 students in our universities and institutes of technology (IoTs). This is set to grow by a third in the next decade as the number of secondary school students continues to expand.

We must as a society respond proactively and progressively to this thirst for knowledge and development. This will require significant investment in education across the board. Higher level education has a crucial role to play but this has to be alongside further education, apprenticeships and other post-second level opportunities.

As Chair of an Expert Group on Future Funding of Higher Education, established by the Minister for Education and Skills in 2014, my focus is on higher education.

To make a decision about future funding the Expert Group will need to first, achieve broad consensus about what we are funding and what the benefits are; and, second, we need to set out what is required from the sector if these contributions and their continued worth is to be maintained and enhanced.

The benefits of higher education

There can be little doubt that investment in higher education has been key to enabling the Irish economy to grow in recent decades. We know that graduates’ knowledge and capabilities enhance productivity. Universities and IoTs are key centres of research and knowledge generation and engines of regional and local economic development. In overall terms the State—through higher tax contributions and lower calls on welfare—benefits significantly from its investment. OECD estimate a cumulative return of 27% (for males) and 17.5% (females) over a 40 year span.

In social terms there are also strong gains associated with the higher skills, increased mobility and more civic engagement. It is also true that higher education through the participation of graduates in civic life and the contribution of our institutions, enriches Ireland’s cultural life. It is through higher education that we inform and nurture an understanding of our national identity and that of other cultures and belief systems.

We can also be proud of our graduates and what they achieve from poets to doctors; film animators to neuroscientists; historians to app designers. In personal terms graduates also gain. Alongside social and cultural benefits they earn more: an honours degree or higher is linked to earning 100% more than adults whose highest educational attainment is a Leaving Certificate or equivalent.

This brings into focus a key issue, how we as a society view individual and collective success. It is my view that the collective success of our society and economy cannot be separated from the opportunities and flourishing of the individual – and, indeed, from the environment in which we all live and work. One important implication of this view is that it contains, at its heart, a focus on both the collective good and the individual. This must be a key consideration in the decision-making around future funding of education.

Higher education faces four significant challenges

We must also recognise that the our universities and IoTs face four significant challenges. First, they are under unprecedented pressure to ensure that quality is maintained and enhanced. This is the single most important way in which higher education serves its students and the public good. We need graduates who can understand our past, engage with the present and imagine the future. This requires renewed attention not just to what graduates learn, but how they learn.

Second, the universities and IoTs need to further adapt and respond to the fundamental changes—taking place around innovation and how knowledge is generated. It is helpful to view that as happening through four spheres—university, business, government and civil society—and how they overlap and interact in a very open manner relies on a wider range of disciplines being fully engaged.

Third, we require that universities and IoTs become more responsive to the changing needs of our economy, society and public system in the medium and long-term. This means giving more attention to how employability of graduates can be improved and the role of high-quality, informed, career advice and support to students.

Fourth, access to the opportunities in universities and IoTs, of those from disadvantaged backgrounds, needs to be improved. This is despite significant progress having been achieved. It must be recognised that addressing current inequities in access will be challenging and resource-intensive to address.

Next steps

The first phase of Expert Group’s work has focused on the issues discussed here: the benefits of higher education and what is required to protect and enhance its contribution to Irish society. This has involved significant consultation with a wide range of stakeholders: academics, administrators, management; students; political stakeholders, policy makers and researchers across the public sector; and with businesses and other social groups. Over the coming months we will examine the efficiency of the universities and the IoTs, and we will identify future funding options by drawing on international experience.

As parents, students, higher education providers, taxpayers, employers, social activists and public representatives, we require a shared understanding of the role and value of higher education and some level of consensus on implementable future funding options. Communication and consultation —including further workshops with stakeholders and focus groups— will be used to develop this understanding and consensus. I hope that this will create the opportunity for all interested parties to engage fully and openly with this process.

Peter Cassells is Independent Chair of the Expert Group on Future Funding of Higher Education.

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