Future college places at risk without action on funding, statement warns

Education Minister Richard Bruton and Higher Education Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor have said no policy decision will be made until there is a recommendation to Government from the Oireachtas education committee

By Niall Murray, Education Correspondent

The availability of college places for today’s first-class pupils is at risk unless there is urgent Government action on funding, it has been warned in an unprecedented, unified statement by third-level leaders, staff and students.

With 40,000 extra students likely to be seeking higher education places by 2030, the joint statement calls for the budget in just under a fortnight to start addressing the issue or face the consequences for quality and capacity.

It was issued by the Irish Universities Association, Technological Higher Education Association (representing institutes of technology), Union of Students in Ireland, and academic staff unions, the Irish Federation of University Teachers and Teachers’ Union of Ireland.

“We request an immediate move by Government to address the funding crisis in Budget 2019 or we risk an irreversible slide in the quality of our third-level system,” they said.

They clearly know what the problem is, now they need to start fixing it. If urgent action is not taken, there’s a real risk that today’s seven and eight-year-old primary school students will not have sufficient college places available to them in 2030 when the demographic bulge peaks,” the statement said.

The third-level coalition group said that the Government has long accepted that higher education is chronically under-funded and accepted the findings of a 2016 report on the funding deficit by an expert group chaired by Peter Cassells. It said the shortfall in funding, compared to what is needed to maintain quality and student participation rates, would reach €600m a year by 2021 and €1bn by 2030.

But Education Minister Richard Bruton and Higher Education Minister Mary Mitchell O’Connor have said no policy decision will be made until there is a recommendation to Government from the Oireachtas education committee.

The cross-party committee has failed to reach consensus on the options put forward by the Cassells report more than two years after it was referred to them by Mr Bruton. The committee asked the Department of Education in January for a report on the economic impacts of each of the proposed measures, but that is not likely to be received until next summer, three years after publication of the Cassells report.

The Government is providing an extra €100m a year over what it provided for higher education colleges’ running costs in 2016. It is also increasing a levy paid by employers to bolster the National Training Fund, but the increased fund is to be directed at further education as well as at third-level.

Despite the united appeal ahead of the budget, third-level bosses and representatives of staff and students differ on how the burden of extra funding should be divided. The unions strongly oppose measures that would increase undergraduate student fees, whether they are charged at the point of entry or as income-contingent graduate loans.

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