UCD and UCD Students’ Union (UCDSU) have both expressed concern that the government’s new plan to exercise further control over education funding may impact on the autonomy of Irish universities.

UCD President Andrew Deeks went public with a message promoting the protection of university autonomy in a letter published in the Irish Times on the 22nd January. He called on the government to ‘entrust university leaders, within the existing oversight mechanisms, to make decisions in the best interests of our students and our wider contributions to society.’

Similarly, Robert Sweeney, UCDSU Education Officer, told the Tribune he believes that ‘stripping back of autonomy is not a good decision for the Irish university sector. Universities are equipped with multiple levels of governance and should be entrusted to govern themselves.’

The issue is in the news again after the Minister for Education and Skills, Richard Bruton, and the Minister of State for Higher Education, Mary Mitchell O’Connor, recently unveiled the government’s plan to link the provision of funding to national objectives in the sector. The proposals will centre on the creation of 3-year ‘System Performance targets’ with each institution.

There is a concern among university management that tying funding to government chosen objectives for universities will restrict their ability to use the money in the best possible way. Deeks cited certain HR functions being removed from university governance in recent years, only for there to be continuing uncertainty over which person or group now exercises control.

Despite the government’s aim to alter the funding model, there has been no sign of additional money. Deeks wrote in his Presidential Bulletin to staff that he expected any changes to their allocation to be ‘very modest. Consequently these changes will not affect our planning and budget process currently underway.’ He stated that UCD was ‘well advanced in accomplishing objectives put forward in the new Performance Framework.’ However, he noted that ‘there is currently no indication of additional funding’ despite the Independent Expert Panel’s view that Ireland’s increasing student numbers cannot be sustained without increased investment.

Sweeney echoed this sentiment. He also cited the Independent Expert Panel’s report on the need for additional funding, then commented, ‘as such Government statements of having the best education sector in Europe by 2026 are not only unrealistic but are more akin to a Trump like statement.’  

Cian Carton – Editor