I thank the Chairman. I am, of course, very grateful to the committee for this opportunity to join in the current discussion on the funding of higher education and of the report of the Expert Group on Future Funding for Higher Education, normally known as the Peter Cassells group. I am speaking here in my capacity as cathaoirleach of Údarás na hOllscoile, the governing body of NUI Galway, NUIG. In that capacity, I work closely with the president of NUIG, Professor James Browne, and with the other leaders of the university. The údarás works with many of the academics and county councillors from the area, and also the student union leadership. It is to some extent also relevant that, for some years previously, I was chair of the Irish Universities Quality Board. That body has now been subsumed into Quality and Qualifications Ireland, QQI, which is all about the quality of our higher education.
The committee will already have received the relevant submission made to it by the Irish Universities Association, IUA, together with the opening statement by Professor Don Barry of University of Limerick. I am in general agreement with the points made by Professor Barry, and with the detailed arguments made in the IUA submission. There is obviously no need for me to go into all the various tables and figures as I am in agreement with them. I welcome the report of the expert group, so ably led by Mr. Peter Cassells. The report clearly sets out the national benefits of investment in the higher education area.
The difficulties caused by ten years of cutbacks in higher education funding have been extreme. A crucial part of the work of the governing body, or Údarás na hOllscoile, concerns financial and budgeting issues. The údarás members and I are acutely conscious of the constant effort by those in the university to stretch available resources to cover essential needs and to source funding from internal sources and external sources, through research grants, help from alumni and every other possible source. It is a constant struggle. In his opening statement, Professor Barry, as chair of the IUA, refers to the purpose of investment in higher education, which is the priority of the committee, as follows:
Firstly, the more complex and changing world for which we are educating students, requires more sophisticated educational approaches. The [Cassells] group captures this well in identifying the need to invest in improved student staff ratios, smaller tutorial groups, more one-to-one contact with students, more project work, enhanced feedback and more time to engage in diverse learning styles and to support at-risk students.
These are precisely the affected areas in NUIG. That NUIG has succeeded, I am very proud to say, in moving up the ranking table of universities, by contrast with others, perhaps, does not mean we have found more money for ourselves, that we are better off or that we are not struggling all the time to make whatever investment is required to meet our needs. At the coalface, in the oversight of the realities of university life, we in NUIG are only too aware of the difficulty, and sometimes impossibility, of meeting the needs of students. If we fail to meet them, we also weaken the international standing of our universities. More importantly, we fail this country and we fail our students.
The Cassells report identifies three groups that benefit from higher education – the State, students and employers. The point of view of employers has been clearly set out in a recent article in The Irish Times by Mr. Danny McCoy, chief executive of IBEC, in which he states accepting the status quo is incompatible with our national ambitions and will condemn Ireland to become an education and research backwater. Mr. McCoy adds: "Ireland's reputation for having one of the best educated work forces in the world becomes increasingly threatened". He concludes: "Failure to invest now in third level will place an entire generation of students and the future of this country at a serious disadvantage".
Both the Cassells report and the IUA submission recommend that investment in higher education come from three sources. It should involve a funding system involving the State, students and employers. I agree with this conclusion and with the need to investigate the setting up of a loan system whereby graduates would contribute when their earnings reach a certain level. This is an urgent matter and not one to be put off for another distant commission.
In considering the specific position of NUIG, the committee should not forget the importance of the university's statutory and strategic obligation to an Gaeilge, the Irish language. In Vision 2020, NUIG's strategic plan for the period 2015 to 2020, under the heading "Pobal na Gaeilge agus an Gaeltachta", reference is made to the university's statutory obligations regarding the provision of education through Irish and its commitment to respond to the living needs of the Irish-speaking community regionally and nationally.
NUIG is the primary national provider of post-primary initial teacher education through the medium of Irish. Acadamh na hOllscolaíochta Gaeilge, established in 2004, operates fully through Irish and is responsible for the development and delivery of academic programmes, research and other services through the medium of Irish. The university operates Gaeltacht centres in An Ceathrú Rua and Carna in County Galway and in Gaoth Dobhair in County Donegal. All that requires investment both by the HEA and the university itself.
NUI Galway is the major higher education institution in the west, and serves the student population of the west and north west. It is designated by the Higher Education Authority as the leader of a group of higher education centres in this entire area. In considering the funding of higher education the committee must look at the population of students which is served. There is a degree of prosperity in the city of Galway area but it cannot be doubted that in the rural areas of Galway, Mayo and Donegal students and their parents are unlikely to have the means to meet large upfront fees. As my own son and his family live in An Spidéal and his children have been educated there I am well aware that the average family in the Gaeltacht and in Connemara generally will find university costs as fixed at present extremely difficult to meet.
"A Reminder of Inequality in Society" was the lead headline on The Irish Times list of feeder schools for third level institutions. This committee, in its present discussion, must deal with the needs of society, of the economy and of higher education providers. It must do so with justice. Above all, it must deal with the needs of young people. It must find the courage to move on this issue now.