Motley’s Deputy of Current Affairs Stephen Moynihan discusses the funding situation for UCC over the coming months.
The financial situation of Ireland’s universities is certainly of concern to all parties with links to UCC, most of all to students and to the 200 staff who have been let go. COVID-19 has only exacerbated the existing funding crisis in higher education. Universities are suffering from decreased income from international students and on-campus commercial activities, along with the financial pressures stemming from the transition to online learning. It is understandable that students are worried that this squeeze will negatively impact education standards and their college experience moving forward.
However, UCC’s Interim President John O’Halloran has moved to reassure students that UCC will be able to maintain its quality. That is, if financial support is forthcoming from government:
“We’ve been determined together with the Students’ Union, together with all of our academic and professional service staff, to say that there will be no impact on education standards. In terms of the teaching, first of all, we sought permission for the way we delivered.” He tells Motley. “The QQI, the quality agency for Ireland, have been informed about what’s going on. That was the first step when all of this happened at the beginning, I made sure that the accrediting bodies were aware in terms of the delivery, but then secondly, the assessment.”
Being an integral part of learning, many students worried about assessment methods as the exam season loomed over the Christmas period. Prof. O’Halloran, whose previous position was as the Vice President of Teaching and Learning in the University, said it was a priority for him to demystify the student body on how their grades were calculated:
“What I reminded everybody there and then [at the beginning of COVID-19] was two things; one is that every single student’s grades are looked at several times by individual groups of staff, and then there’s an external moderator on all of those. And secondly, we invited students into the Exam Business Continuity Group, so that students themselves could see how we were conducting our business in an open, transparent manner. UCC’s learning experience was challenged, but we tried to give assurance that everything was done according to the best way […] we’ve obviously been getting feedback from all of our external examiners. We have reviewed all the scripts, we are currently doing analysis to see ‘was this year any different?’, and there’s no evidence to see that any grade inflation happened or that there was any significant deviation, or deflation of grades.”
Despite his confidence in UCC’s educational standards remaining high, Prof. O’Halloran admits that the changed learning experience that students are faced with this year has presented unique difficulties:
“In terms of the experience there is no question for staff and for students that this is a very, very different experience, one which none of us have experienced ourselves up to this year. But you know, one of the things that I really was struck by at the beginning of all this […] there was a campaign [from the Students’ Union] about no academic disadvantage, which went away very quickly… So we’ve really worked really hard to learn and listen from [the Students’ Union].”
An issue that seems to keep Prof. O’Halloran up at night is one of funding and the physical space that is UCC: “I’m worried about infrastructure, I am worried about the quality of our buildings and spaces and things as a consequence of lack of investment. Obviously, we will prioritise the learning and teaching and research of the institution, and that means other things may be neglected if the resources don’t come”, he said. Prof. O’Halloran iterated that, unlike Trinity College Dublin, UCC has no intention to sell off buildings or to cut physical lectures at the undergraduate level.
This point bears emphasising. The Irish Government has been continually putting off making a decision on how to fund higher education more adequately, ever since the publication of the Cassells’ Report in 2016, which made three suggestions to government: A) A taxpayer-funded system with free or nominal fees for students; B) A continuation of the current system; or C) An introduction of student-loans, to be paid off after graduation. When pushed whether he would support the latter of these options, Prof. O’Halloran was hesitant.
“I think the university has to follow government policy. We would hope that they [the government] get the funding crisis that we’ve all been subject to for the last four or five years resolved. My hope is that government policy will actually start to emerge, whatever that is. Whatever government decides, we will do. I wouldn’t offer a view on what that should be right now.”
Jamie Fraser, Welfare Officer at UCC’s Students’ Union, also spoke to Motley about UCC’s financial situation, highlighting the issue of government funding as the point of concern for the University and the worries that if this Covid-injected cash-flow stops, what will the impact be?
“This will affect UCCs financial situation majorly and thus the student experience”, he tells Motley. “The entire workings of an institution hinge on students being comfortable and happy. It is easy to forget that without students, UCC would not exist. No member of the Students’ Union, the Library or Senior Management would have a job if it was not for students.” Fraser’s role revolves around reminding key decision-makers of the importance of having students at the epicentre of decision-making in the university.
But despite the impending dark skies of funding cuts in a post-Covid world, Fraser can see the positives of the good this money has done for the student population: “In tandem with the ACCESS Services, we have ensured a successful roll out of the laptop loan scheme which has made online learning possible for a significant cohort of students. Further, we have seen that new counsellors and specifically trained mental health nurses will be hired in accordance with the new mental health strategy to tackle counselling waiting lists.”
This list is by no means extensive, there is more room for the university and the support it offers to grow and funding is the way to recovery. But until funding comes in the door, the part students can play is by demanding their voice be heard on all matters relating to them. Part of this vocalisation is being facilitated through the UCCSU Forum where students can air their concerns in the most effective and efficient way possible.