Recent discussion on university funding has been on the basis of the Public Accounts Committee report. This, along with the RTE Prime-time Investigates program, has led to a perception of a state funded sector out of financial control. Both of these are wrong.
The Public Accounts committee is a powerful, and correctly so, committee which is charged, in the end, with ensuring that state money is wisely spent. The nature of this gives it an extraordinarily wide remit. Given that state funding is widely spread, almost any organization can and has found itself hauled before the PAC to account for its spending, regardless it seems of the import of the spending issues. Governance at the police training college, spending on fisheries centres, and of course examination of the operations at various charitable bodies to which the state has subcontracted social and health care, all these have been examined in the PAC.
The report by the PAC was, at least in principle, on the financial statements of the third level sector. Correctly they note their unhappiness with very lengthy delays in the certification of accounts, with some institutions years in “arrears”. Why this should be so is not at all clear and the committee is perfectly correct to note this. All elements of the sector operate under the same issues – the need for dual format reporting and the need for commercial audit as well as that of the Comptroller and Auditor General. Why some can get their accounts in on time and others not remains unclear.
More generally however we need to consider the limits to state oversight. Does a single euro of state money given to an organization then mean it can be called before the PAC? Where does the line begin? at what % funding does it warrant the most powerful committee of the oireachtas to intervene? Or is it a nominal monetary amount? If so, what level? €1m? €10m? Moreover, where does balance come into this? Do we know if our regulatory system is proportional?
In the Higher Education space there are now calls to introduce, via a new Technological Universities Bill, a power for the Minister for Education to appoint an investigator to any university to address issues of “concern” What these concerns might be, and how they might be determined, is unclear. The Higher Education Authority has proposed fines for such things as not keeping within agreed staff limits, breaching gender guidelines and other governance issues. All good things, to be sure, to strive for but we must ask – when is a role disproportionate?
What is clear is that as time goes by, at least for the major universities, two things are happening. First, the share of their total funding coming from the state is declining, and second the state is seeking more and more oversight. A less and less dominant piper is playing the tune. We have private bodies which obtain far greater percentages of their funding from the state and which do not face these same degrees of overarching oversight.
I looked at the 2010, 2012, 2014 and where available the latest (which may be 2014…) financial statements of the 7 universities. In each case I disaggregated the funding into that from the state ( the block grant paid, the free fees initiative, and any research funding noted as state or semi-state) and others. UL did not provide this breakdown nor did Maynooth (for the the earlier period) so they are not included here. Shown here is the high level takeaway and then the overall funding structures by institution.
It is very clear that over the last half decade or more we have seen a step change in how universities are funded. The taxpayer is now well less than 50% in funding. Indeed if we look forward towards the future where students pay fees via income contingent loans, it is very possible that state funding might fall towards 25% or lower. The block grant, paid in effect by taxation to fund the public good element of higher education, that has been relentlessly declining in nominal terms and soon will be 10% or less of the funding. Allied to the decline in nominal and especially absolute terms of state research funding, which is lets recall competitive in nature and not guaranteed, we see 25% looming.
If the state is funding, directly or indirectly, less than 1/4 of the total sector spend, then one has to ask if there is a sense of proportionality missing. Of course the state should have oversight of how its funds are spent. But we have a constitutional officer in the Comptroller and Auditor General to do that, and it is well and comprehensively done. Having more and more invasive oversight should come with additional funding. Absent same, and absent a dialog on the role of state funding, we might well ask whether or not the sector is simply being used as a convenient target for political capital creation?
Politicians will never lose by calling for greater oversight, for greater accountability, for creating a sense of a crisis where perhaps none exists. Nor will they lose for blaming, in a perverse shock doctrine manner, the perceived failings of a sector in which they have refused to invest.
Note: This is ENTIRELY my own opinion and in no way shape or form represents that of TCD or indeed any other higher education body.