Recently, the QQI (Quality and Qualifications Ireland) published a report entitled ‘Quality in an era of diminishing resources’, which was commissioned to provide a thematic overview of the commentary in institution-led quality review reports on the impact of the reduction in funding to institutions on the quality of learning and teaching in the Irish higher education system over the seven-year period from 2008-2015.
For most, it is no secret that the higher education sector in Ireland has been undergoing serious funding cuts, as part of the Government’s austerity measures to come out of the economic downturn arising from the global crisis in 2008. The report references the speech given by Tom Boland, the Chief Executive of the Higher Education Authority (HEA), at a conference in September 2015 on the Future Funding of Higher Education in Ireland organised by the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) to summarise the funding context of the Irish higher education sector:
“Over the period 2007/08 to 2014/15: There has been a fall in state grants for higher education of 38%. Overall funding for higher education has fallen by at least 13.5%. The overall number of full-time students has increased by 25%. This has all resulted in an overall decrease in the total funding per student of 22% (from €11,000 to €9,000). At the same time the numbers employed in higher education institutions fell by 13%. In real terms the situation is worse because if we had maintained staffing ratios as they were at the beginning of the crisis we have effectively taken 4,000 staff out of the system.”
The main content of the report is organised into three key themes: 1) The general economic climate and reduced resources; 2) Staffing and the student learning experience; and 3) The learning and teaching environment. Evidence from the report points to “the cumulative effects of reduced funding, reduced staff numbers, increased teaching burdens, the casualisation of staffing and promotion limitations for staff”.
As the report indicates, most institutions have claimed that, like this unit has reported, “staff appear to have coped remarkably well with the additional work pressures that have resulted from the need to expand student numbers at a time of reduced funding”.
This is what is usually called ‘Doing More with Less’. Remaining staff, because of their commitment and ‘sense of duty’ to their roles in order to minimise the effect on the student learning experience, may take on more responsibilities in the face of increasing pressures. One has to ask, even though it seems staff seem to be able to do so, is it preferable or sustainable to keep this way? The same unit has raised its concern by saying, “the [HEI] must recognise that there are practical limits to the requirement to ‘do more with less'”.
Tom Boland at the RIA conference listed two possible scenarios for the Irish higher education system which directly address this ‘do more with less’ problem: “Do we have a system which is now much more efficient, developing the same quality of graduates and delivering the same excellence in research for significantly less resource, or do we have a system now characterised by poor infrastructure, a decline in quality and which is severaly at rish of breakding down unless the trend of underinvestment is reversed?”
It is clear from the QQI report that the second scenario is more likely as it warns, “What is striking is the general impression from some reports that some units have reached a ‘crisis point’ where continued cuts/reductions may have serious and irretrievable implications for their future sustainability.” This echoes the finding of the 2015 Cassells Group discussion paper, which contends that “a continuation of the existing funding level for higher education is not an option if Ireland wishes to ensure quality across all disciplines and activities”.
Although it sounds cheerful when one says we can do more with less, in the long term, it is harmful to staff, students, and the sector, as it simple is not sustainable to ‘overuse’ the human resources, definitely not when the reductions in resources negatively impact teaching, learning and research activities.
(The full QQI report could be downloaded here: http://www.qqi.ie//Pages/Quality-in-an-Era-of-Diminishing-Resources-Report-.aspx)