The students union at my university are staging a protest tomorrow against the university’s management. It being Valentine’s day, the campaign features a broken heart and a slogan #ItsNotMeItsUCD. Other tweets in the campaign complain about how UCD has become a “commercialised university”, use the hashtag #NotaBusiness and contain dark murmerings about “corporate interests”. The campaign wants action from UCD management on a number of issues.
I fully understand student unhappiness with campus rents being high, with campus services not being better and various other ways in which UCD has sought to either raise income or reduce costs. I have no role in the management of the university and I don’t wish to defend the management for every decision they have taken but … I think this campaign completely misses the actual source of these problems which is the massive reduction in government funding provided to Irish universities.
The table below shows comparable estimates of income and expenditure by UCD comparing 2019 with 2009 (the last accounts published are for 2020 but that was a strange year for the university’s finances so I’ve used 2019 instead). The figures come from here.
A few items are worth highlighting.
- UCD is not a profit-making business. It has no shareholders or “corporate interests” to pay dividends to. The money the university earns gets spent on paying for staff and services and keeping the university operating. In other tables in the financial reports you can see that there is no large endowment of money to pay for things. The university generally keeps enough cash on hand to run the university for a few months but no more than that.
- Total state funding for UCD from fees and grants fell by €85 million between 2009 and 2019, even as the economy recovered and government coffers flowed over. The state took away about 20% of the cost of funding UCD during the recession and did not return this funding when the economy improved.
- Despite this, UCD increased spending over this period with most of the additional spending going on “other operating expenses”. Spending on student facilities increased from €3 million in 2009 to €4.8 million in 2019.
- The additional spending was possible because the university increased fees from other sources by €100 million and because they raised an additional €55 million from other sources. The largest part of the increase in fee income came from Irish undergraduates having to pay a €3000 fee (a policy introduced by the government to cover much of the cost of reduced state funding) but the university also raised a lot of additional fees from non-EU students. €19 million of the increase in other income came from rents from student residences.
The bottom line in terms of what happened to Irish universities over the last decade is that the Irish government effectively walked away from funding them properly and told the universities to go raise their own income to pay for the provision of third level education.
The SU want UCD to earn less income from rents and fees and to spend more on student services and staff salaries. I’d love all of that to happen but the reality is that, as things stand, this would open a huge gap between UCD’s income and expenditure and the funding to allow that is not there. The only way there can be a large increase in spending and a corresponding reduction in income is if UCD were to get back some of the state funding that was taken away.
There is a long tradition of student unions protesting against their own university and, in many cases, they pick good causes and help to improve the world. In this case, I’m afraid UCD SU have picked the right cause but the wrong target. Ironically, this protest comes at a time when there appears to be some debates within the Cabinet about providing better funding for the university sector. Those in government who don’t want to provide more money for universities or to cut fees will be relieved that tomorrow’s protest is focused at UCD’s management rather than the Department of Higher Education or the Department of Public Expenditure.
The reality is that in the absence of a serious change in state funding, there will be no improvements in the areas the SU cares about. And blaming UCD management won’t help them come up with a magic money tree that allows more spending with lower income.