“The formal launch of the Technological Higher Education Association (THEA) marks a significant step in Irish higher education,” the incoming external chair of the THEA Council, Ms. Regina Moran, told a large audience of educators and members of the higher education community at a major conference in Dublin on Monday (April 3rd).
“It affords the opportunity to reflect on the contribution of THEA’s members – the fourteen institutes of technology – and to celebrate the distinct contribution that they have made to Irish society. Over recent decades Ireland has consciously fostered a diverse higher education landscape in which the institutes of technology have played a seminal role.
“The fourteen member institutes within the Technological Higher Education Association are themselves diverse but they share much in common including the role of providing apprenticeship training in higher education; integration of entrepreneurship and work experience; optimum expressions of regional support; the digitalisation agenda; and a strong focus on work-based learning.
“The launch of THEA affords an opportunity to celebrate the particularly successful role that the institutes have played in widening access to higher education and the manner in which they have largely removed geographical location as an access barrier, contributing considerably to greater social equality and cohesion.”
In a keynote address, Dr Charles Larkin of Trinity College addressed the funding challenge that is facing all of Irish higher education. An analysis carried out by Dr Larkin and colleagues showed that a proposal to introduce an income contingent loan (ICL) would cost the Exchequer €10bn over 12 years before repayments stabilised the system. This would be in addition to financing all grant recipients.
An income contingent loan scheme was a potential instrument suggested in the report from the Expert Group on Future Funding of Higher Education, chaired by former trade union leader Mr Peter Cassells. Under the proposed scheme, graduates would start paying their loan back when they reached a certain income level. Dr Larkin and Dr Shaen Corbet from DCU carried out a detailed cost benefit analysis of the proposed scheme. Their conclusion is that “the Irish system is neither small enough nor large enough to make an ICL system work. The cost benefit analysis – even excluding set-up costs, legal enforcement, and judicial review – still does not support the implementation of the ICL model.”
THEA’s new chief executive, Dr Joseph Ryan, told the conference that the third level technological sector is in the midst of a funding crisis that must be addressed. “The report of the Expert Group chaired by Peter Cassells has clearly recognised this. The sector has seen a decrease in the state grant of 35%, a drop in core staffing levels of 12%, a virtual halt to capital investment and an increase in student numbers of 30% between 2008 -2015.”
Dr Ryan also warned that funding solutions should not limit student access. “The single greatest achievement of the technological sector to date has been in facilitating access to higher education on the part of a larger proportion of our society, thereby expanding individual horizons while also enhancing the welfare and quality of life for our society as a whole.
“Along with celebration, THEA’s principal focus is on the future of this distinctive sector. The institutes of technology have come together in this vibrant new organisation in order to give a more coherent voice to the technological sector and to consolidate the institutes’ role in promoting a more equal and prosperous Ireland.”