As the question surrounding the future of higher education is debated in the national media, the difficulties faced by institutes of technology can often be forgotten. Higher education and the purpose it fulfils changes depending on who you ask. Someone from the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation might tell you it’s about supporting the Irish economy. An English professor might tell you that education doesn’t need to be justified, that education is valuable for its own sake.

For the heads of these institutions in Ireland, however, it is clear that education is about benefitting society. This is why, at the end of last year, the Technological Higher Education Authority (THEA) called for publicly funded education for all students up to level seven. Society, THEA argued, should recognise the public good of higher education and the work of institutes of technology.

Many public figures involved in higher education have expressed their views on the current crisis, with different people approaching it from different viewpoints. Provost Patrick Prendergast talks about cans being kicked down roads, while Senator Robbie Gallagher of Fianna Fáil, talked about running out of road at a recent meeting of the Oireachtas Education and Skills Committee.

Yet nothing captured the pressures facing institutes of technology more than when, appearing before the Oireachtas Education and Skills Committee, nearly all the presidents of institutes of technology chuckled darkly together about how many of their number were facing severe financial challenges, if not a deficit. The phrase “existential challenge” was thrown around more than once.

THEA’s main concern surrounds access and the role of institutes of technology in acting as gateways into third-level education for students across the country. One of the most memorable moments of the presentation to the committee came when the President of Limerick Institute of Technology (LIT), Prof Vincent Cunnane, called on the committee to prioritise access, describing it as the “raison d’etre of what we do and always have done”. Following on from the Irish Universities Association (IUA) appearance at the committee that morning, with their call for an income-contingent loan scheme, THEA’s emphasis on access and free education sounded distinctly revolutionary.

A number of the students coming into the institutes are different, but the funding model that is there doesn’t recognise the fact that, if you want to have an effective access programme, you need an effective support programme

This is, of course, an important aim for universities too. The Trinity Access Programme (TAP) was recently adopted by a constituent college of the University of Oxford. Yet institutes of technology face a more particular set of challenges compared to universities, with students typically requiring more support and mentoring alongside normal teaching. Part of this is because students are increasingly entering institutes of technology in more non-traditional ways, such as through access programmes.

Speaking to The University Times, Cunnane says that only 48 per cent of their students enter the institution through the CAO system. Additionally, 18 per cent of LIT’s students are mature students while 70 per cent are, according to Cunnane, on a grant of some sort, which emphasises the uphill battle they face in relation to funding cuts.

“Most of these people coming from families that have no exposure to the third-level previously”, he adds, a fact that already sets them apart from many university students.

There is similar story in the Waterford Institute of Technology (WIT). Speaking to The University Times, President of WIT, Prof Willie Donnelly, emphasised the high proportion of mature students in his institution, as well as the large proportion of students entering through non-traditional routes.

“A lot of the students that do come through into third-level education, at least a number of them, need additional support that they’re not getting elsewhere”, he says. Donnelly puts this down to other cutbacks, such as in the health service, that mean “third-level institutions have to deal with a broader range of issues” when it comes to students.

This opens the question of whether the government recognises these particular challenges facing institutes of technology. While acknowledging that there are many students in universities facing the same problems and challenges as students in institutes of technology, Donnelly says: “A number of the students coming into the institutes are different, but the funding model that is there doesn’t recognise the fact that, if you want to have an effective access programme, you need an effective support programme.”

The purpose of institutes of technology, according to Cunnane, is to be a “social change agent”. This includes supporting students in their professional training, as well as in the “skills that the modern economy needs”.

For a large percentage of the body that we deal with, the family backgrounds are not used to taking on debt, never mind pushing that debt out for years to come

“I believe the government is interested in this”, Cunnane said. However, he was significantly less optimistic about whether the government was willing to fund institutes of technology to carry out this role.

Funding models, of course, are the big talking point in Irish higher education at the moment. THEA’s rejection of an income-contingent loan scheme reflects their belief that it would detrimentally impact students in institutes of technology who are largely more dependant on grants throughout their time in college.

Cunnane tells me that THEA’s proposal was about “trying to nuance the Cassells report”, referring to the report published in July by the government’s higher education funding working group. “There are families that will be more than happy that there are income-contingent loans available. But for a large percentage of the body that we deal with, the family backgrounds are not used to taking on debt, never mind pushing that debt out for years to come”, he said. He also referred to students who were “afraid” for the future of maintenance grants.

THEA’s argument against loans goes back to the value of third-level and the contribution of students from institutes of technology to society. “Our argument is that society is the biggest beneficiary of people coming into third-level education, especially from those diverse or underrepresented groups and that society ultimately gains and society has to be prepared to invest in these early years”, continues Cunnane.

The Irish system always looks for a one-size-fits-all solution, and we’re saying you can’t do that. There may be a role for income-contingent loans, but there’s also a role for maintenance grants

Both Cunnane and Donnelly have seen the dramatic impact of cuts on students in institutes of technology. Donnelly notes how non-retention rates are higher than in universities, emphasising the extra support students need to keep them in college: “We need to extend the funding that’s available today by the government in a number of areas, and also we need to invest in support services for students in third-level, particularly in physical health, mental health and financial support.”

All institutions have adapted to these cuts and have tried to do their best to support their students. WIT, according to Donnelly, have “invested heavily in developing support systems for students”, including a centre for lifelong learning, as well as a medical centre and financial supports for students if necessary.

The frustrating thing for staff, Cunnane says, is having to try and prevent students leaving college as a result of cutbacks: “We know how to fix retention. But we don’t necessarily have the resources in order to do that.”

This is what their proposal comes down to: an attempt to create a funding model that matches the particular needs and concerns of many students in institutes of technology. Without an ability to take out loans to fund various projects, as universities can, the room for large investments is limited for institutes of technology. Add this to a student population that often needs more support, and the challenges facing institutes of technology are stark. “The Irish system always looks for a one-size-fits-all solution, and we’re saying you can’t do that. There may be a role for income-contingent loans, but there’s also a role for maintenance grants, there’s also a role to ensure that the vast, the significant expectations that have been raised, at all levels of society, towards third-level education, can be met. We’ve opened up that box, there’s no going back.”