Colleges in line for €250m spending boost

The country’s third-level colleges are due to receive a significant overhaul thanks to more than €250m extra being allocated under the Government’s revised capital spending plans.

The extra funding will go specifically towards higher education, for which the investment planned during 2018 to 2021 had been €110m.

Only transport and housing benefited more than the entire education sector from the additional €4.3bn being allocated following the mid-term review of the 2016-2021 capital plan.

Along with the extra €257m targeted at higher education, a further €332m is going to capital investment in schools — over and above the €2bn previously earmarked for building at primary and second levels.

Meanwhile, €53m is being allocated to capital costs linked to new apprenticeships and other courses in the further education and training sector, and for some small building projects.

While the third-level capital boost will be welcomed on campuses around the country, the funding is in response to concerns about the sector to cope with huge growth in student numbers.

It has also been argued Ireland is falling way behind standards internationally, particularly in relation to hi-tech equipment and labs for specialist teaching and research.

The extra investment follows visits by Mary Mitchell O’Connor, the minister of state for higher education, to various several third-level institutions, since her appointment to the role in a ministerial reshuffle by Taoiseach Leo Varadkar.

The funding will be dedicated to allowing colleges cater for growing student numbers, but also to expand capacity in areas of key skills needs, and ensuring core campus infrastructure is fit for purpose.

The allocation of around €200m for public-private partnerships (PPP) to build further third-level projects is also imminent, after consideration of proposals invited from colleges.

“These combined investments will now put us in a position to make real and substantial progress in addressing the infrastructure deficits in the sector,” Ms Mitchell O’Connor said.

With regional development also a key factor, she signalled her expectation to have a Technological Universities Bill passed by Christmas, to allow institutes of technology formally apply for TU status.

The Irish Research Council has welcomed the provision of a further €21m of capital funding over the next four years to support the development of researchers across all disciplines and at different stages of their careers.

Most of the total €663m extra capital allocation to all education sectors is expected to be spent from 2019 to 2021, although €28m has been added to its 2018 capital spending limit of €717m.

The outcome of the review will bring the Department of Education’s entire 2018-2021 capital budget to over €3.6bn.

The funding is separate from an extra €60m going into higher education next year, most of which comes from the anticipated €47.5m that will be raised by the addition of 0.1% to the National Training Fund levy paid by employers as part of their PRSI contribution.

Although the total expected to be generated by the increased levy will be €58m, more than €10m of that is paid by the State in its capacity as an employer, but EU fiscal rules prevent its spending.

A department spokesperson said this will be added to the NTF surplus, but it can not be spent because of the current rules. At the end of 2016, the NTF surplus stood at almost €240m.

The planned addition of a further 0.1% increase to the levy in 2019 and again in 2020 would bring the amount employers pay to 1% of employees’ pay, costing them an extra €50 each of the next three years for a worker on a €50,000 salary.

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