As of 2016 the Irish Government’s spending on higher education amounted to 1.9% of its total expenditure. That’s compared to a Eurozone average of 1.5%. Our total education spend was at 12.1% compared to a Eurozone average of 9.7%. At the same time we spent 19.2% of our budget on health compared to a Eurozone average of 15%.
It’s interesting to observe how these ‘overspends’ are perceived. The health service is routinely lambasted and portrayed as grossly inefficient, run by hordes of incompetent administrators and kept going by selfless, almost heroic frontline staff. Administrators and to a lesser extent, consultants, are the bad guys.
In the case of education, there isn’t as much consensus as to who the bad guys are. Teachers do get a bashing from time to time over their long holidays even though the evidence is that extending the school year has no positive benefits. Third level lecturers are often portrayed as doing five or six hours of work per week because many people (including families of lecturers!) still presume that all lecturers do is lecture. Universities are seen as little more than advanced secondary schools, not the complex multi-mission organisations that they have become. So there is a perception that there is plenty of scope for us all to work harder within the education sphere and this makes everyone, including politicians sceptical about our appeals for more funding. They can, for example, point to our frequent statements that although funding per student has been halved, we have managed to maintain quality.
The solutions to the health service’s problems are almost universally seen as involving some sort of fundamental restructuring of the system: far more emphasis on primary care, for example. Most people recognise, based on experience, that maintaining the status quo will just lead to more and more of the state’s funds being gobbled up by health without an improvement in quality.
In education, especially our third level system, the solutions to our ill-defined problems are nearly always portrayed (by us) as involving some mechanism for increasing the amount of money poured into the institutions. As mentioned above, campaigners frequently point out that the funding per student has halved over the last decade but it’s worth noting that if spending were to be restored to peak levels our spend on higher education would jump to 2.5 times the Eurozone average. That would be hard to justify even with our demographics. But the key point is that fundamental restructuring of our higher education system is never on the agenda. There are token efforts made from time to time but these inevitably amount to little more than exercises in merger mania.
I find our differing perspectives on health education very interesting. I think a key point is that the deficiencies of our health service are very visible and affect every family in the country while the higher education system remains shrouded in mystery. No one really knows what the core issues are. No one knows if we’re doing a good job or not. No one really knows if we are spending our money wisely. No one is quite sure if we are, in fact, prioritizing education at all. No one knows how much, or how little, our academic staff teach. So the conversation is controlled by the institutions but when people are in the dark they can become cynical and suspicious and just turn a deaf ear.