We appreciate this opportunity to discuss the expansion of the technological universities. We will not retrace the recent Covid-19 discussion other than to say that we are working closely with relevant stakeholders to negotiate our way through this in a manner that supports learners and protects our communities. Our desire is to realise some managed and early limited return of identified cohorts. Our institutions have offered their facilities and expertise to support the scaling of the vaccination programme. We are also working with the HSE locally to put in place whatever additional logistical framework is required.
I am pleased to introduce our delegation. We are led by the chair of THEA, Professor Vincent Cunnane. He is joined by the deputy chair, Dr. Patricia Mulcahy; the incoming president of MTU, Professor Maggie Cusack; and Mr. Paul Hannigan, president of Letterkenny Institute of Technology. With the recent commencement of MTU, we anticipate having five technological universities in the coming year.
The pathway to the technological universities, TUs, was set out in the national strategy for higher education. It recommended that a network of TUs should be established within the higher education landscape. Following the enactment of the statute in 2018, THEA worked with stakeholders to craft what has become known as the TU Research Network, TURN, report. It can be argued that this report documents more thoroughly the objects and character of a technological university than does the 2018 Act. It was a strength that the consideration was located within the integrated policy context framed by Project Ireland 2040 and the National Development Plan 2018-2027. These envisaged the role of the TUs in responding to Government priorities and societal challenges through the deepening of the talent pool and driving applied research and innovation. As provided in the TURN report, these strategies highlight the central role of developing digital literacy, skills and expertise across the entire workforce as a prerequisite for adaptation to and mainstreaming of digital technologies across all sectors of the Irish economy.
This committee will soon weigh the economic advice from the European Commission on the Cassells report. Determining a sustainable solution for the future funding of higher education at a level that can reflect the demographic demand and meet the ambitions laid out for the sector remains the major challenge. The TURN report has resulted in an injection of €90 million over three years. Continuing this scale of investment will be required in order to ensure the continuing integration and development of these universities. In a recent Dáil reply, the Minister reaffirmed the centrality of higher education to our progress as a country. All of the options within the Cassells report foresee a significant lift in Exchequer funding. Given the current pandemic and the anticipated consequences for the economy, it is not envisaged that there can be any increase in the student contribution in the foreseeable future. We have consistently advised against the introduction of student loans on grounds of equity and practicality.
Central to that argument is the passionate belief that access to higher learning should be available for all who would benefit.
The final leg of the funding stool is the contribution from enterprise through the national training fund. While disbursals from this fund in the 2021 budget have fuelled the July stimulus and the skills package, there remains a sum of €700 million. Utilising a portion of this money to invest in the infrastructure of a TU sector, equipping laboratories and facilitating digital technology would respond to the recommendations within the TURN report and better position a growing sector to compete globally.
The landscape change we are experiencing will necessitate further reform of the funding model. Building on TURN, the most recent THEA pre-budget submission proposed a ten-year research and innovation capacity-building fund. A sum of €5 million was made available in 2019 and again in 2020. The Higher Education Authority, HEA, review of the allocation model recommended that this be increased over time to 5% of the overall recurrent grant funding for the sector. For comparison, the comprehensive university sector receives a research and innovation allocation of 10%. The THEA submission sought a phased increase in this allocation to €40 million in 2023. Committee support would be significant in realising the step change in high quality research concentrations, developed with a particular focus on industry collaboration and innovation.
In this context, it is worth reflecting on the baseline position. In October 2016, the HEA published a financial review of the institutes of technology. The review stated:
The sector has faced significant challenges, with the state grant falling by 34% between 2008 and 2015 while student numbers grew by 24%. This has led to total income per student contracting by 25.5% over the same period.
This spoke to an unpromising foundation for the embrace of the scale of change envisaged.
Over the past decade, there has been a dearth of capital investment available from the State coffers. This is not a level playing field. The traditional universities have access to the borrowing framework as provided for in their legislation. We have similar facility, but it has not been enacted. As of 30 September 2019, the borrowings of the seven universities amounted to €741 million, provided predominantly and cost-effectively by the European Investment Bank. On a positive note, the State has a public private partnership programme that is providing for 11 buildings in the TU sector. It cannot be stressed sufficiently how vital these projects are. We ask that these continue to be given priority from the Government to ensure their timely delivery.
Research is identified as the key signifier of the step change demanded of the TUs. Building capacity enabling a transformation of research performance is the prerequisite to positioning the TUs as major engines of innovation and economic growth. This entails developing human capital, facilitating research activity and opportunities for existing staff and implementing a new career development and employment framework. Linking this to a focus on societal challenges of the 21st century consistent with the objectives of Innovation 2020 and its successor, and the Climate Action Plan 2019, is what can be expected of modern and dynamic centres of learning and research. This is consistent with equipping Ireland to compete for funding from Horizon Europe, helping to deliver on the sustainable development goals and leveraging the opportunities that are there, post Brexit.
Our institutions are grounded in their communities. The detailed socioeconomic profile data published by the HEA provides a valuable insight. In the most recent data set, our institutions demonstrate a negative deprivation index score. The HEA states that institutes of technology are effective in providing higher education to the population profile of their regions. Indeed, the overall profile of students enrolled in the sector matches the national population profile more closely than any other set of institutions. It points to the role of the technological sector in support of equity, opportunity and social cohesion.
The sector has been recognised for its close links to further education and for building pathways for progression and the integrated nature of the new department should assist further in this. A goal of the TUs is to facilitate a regional lifelong learning system with seamless transitions and pathways from a range of different starting points, transfer and progression within and between TUs and other higher educational institutions, HEIs, and progression to employment, further learning and participation in society. TUs will become centres of recognised quality and the focus for regional lifelong learning where people can learn at their own pace, anywhere, anytime, without barriers.
We will work closely with legislators, Government and its agencies to identify and agree a sustainable funding model for higher education. We will contribute to the development of legislation to realise what is likely to be the Higher Education Commission. Related to this is the consideration to be afforded reform of governance which the Minister, Deputy Harris, has signalled as a priority. Equipping our universities with appropriate organisational design and a suitable academic career framework will be essential to fulfilling the ambition invested in TUs and is consistent with the implementation of TU-apposite career structures which is the seventh in the focused recommendations from the TURN report. This technological sector with its links to enterprise, its unique balance between research, pedagogy, and skills, and its regional connectedness will be central to our collective national endeavour to recover from the ravages of this pandemic. With targeted investment, we can deliver on the Government’s resilience and recovery plan.
We highlight and recommend three priority areas for focus. The first is sustainability. To deliver on the recommendations set out in the TURN report, this includes reconfiguring the existing HEA landscape funding arrangements so that a dedicated funding stream is put in place to support TU development and organisation change in management.
The second is solidarity. This sector is cohesive and its institutions are closely integrated into their communities, which is key to broadening access and thereby affording opportunity to all. There is a well-documented ambition for this sector set out in national policy but first, we, as a society, must negotiate a period of recalibration and recovery. With targeted investment, our institutions can be central to this. We can assist the Government to achieve national goals.
Support is the final priority area in order to deliver on the capital investment through schemes such as the public private partnership projects and to afford our institutions access to them borrowing framework. Allied to this, research capacity should be enhanced through increased funding directed at developing researcher human capital in TUs.