THE highest number of school leavers in six years face the prospect of reduced choices on college courses with third-level chiefs warning that further funding cuts will impact on the level of services they can offer next autumn.
As the Higher Education Authority (HEA) warned university bosses to prepare for tighter staffing restrictions next year, in addition to the 6% cuts required on their pay budgets since 2008, it emerged that student numbers sitting the Leaving Certificate next week could be the highest since 2005.
The State Examinations Commission has 55,783 entrants this year, 400 more than at the same time in 2009 and up from just 52,000 in 2006, although numbers actually taking exams usually falls slightly between application stage and June each year.
With overall numbers seeking entry to third-level courses already known to be up 6% to a record 72,000 – including more than 44,000 who begin the Leaving Certificate on Wednesday – the college entry points needed for hundreds of courses were already expected to rise.
But although school leavers have been assured that colleges will have enough places to ensure their chances are not reduced by rising numbers of mature students and others returning to education, they could now face restricted subject choices because of looming third-level cuts.
NUI Galway president Dr James Browne said his own college is already catering for 10% more students with 6% less staff in the past two years.
“The difficulties we face are [that] we can’t provide tutorials, we can’t provide workshops, and optional courses in third and fourth year that make for an interesting degree will be under pressure,” he said.
“I would say we won’t cut full programmes but we will certainly have to cut back the offerings in some of those programmes, so many individual courses which might be part of a third or fourth year will certainly be under pressure,” he told RTÉ’s News at One.
The Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT) reacted angrily to reports that some colleges will be forced to make redundancies, saying it would not agree to any compulsory job losses.
Tánaiste and Education Minister Mary Coughlan said non-capital third-level funding, already down 9% to €1.2 billion this year, is being discussed with the Department of Finance but no decisions will be made until later in the year.
“The HEA are given a block grant which they administer on my behalf but they’re right in saying that you shouldn’t enter into certain types of expenditure when in fact, there may not be the resources to pay for it,” Ms Coughlan said.
The situation increases pressure on the Government to reconsider a student contribution – such as a graduate loan scheme backed by Ms Coughlan’s predecessor Batt O’Keeffe until the Green Party forced the issue off the agenda last October – when a higher education strategy review group is brought to cabinet later this year.
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