The urgency of solving the gap in funding of colleges requires more immediate action than awaiting the political consensus sought by Education Minister Richard Bruton, third-level figures have said.
However, while management and unions agree about the severity of the funding crisis, they differ on how the money is raised.
The Cassells report was published on the same day an international ranking system showed most Irish colleges improved their placings since last year. Trinity College Dublin is up 10 places to 175th in the Center for World University Rankings, but University College Dublin and University College Cork fell slightly to 240th and 443rd, respectively.
There were jumps up the ranking for four other universities and Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, ranging from 545th-placed NUI Galway to University of Limerick in 972nd.
However, various rankings in the past three years have shown an overall downward trend in the position of Irish universities, despite the country’s relative strength for its size.
One factor has been increasing staff-student ratios, and the Irish Universities Association (IUA) said these have been rising because of staff cuts enforced by government employment controls.
With 2,000 fewer staff across the third-level sector than in 2008, universities alone have seen the number of students for each academic rise from around 17 to 21, considerably worse than OECD average ratio of 14:1 in 2012.
Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT) general secretary Mike Jennings said it was very easy to illustrate cuts in other parts of the economy, but the higher education sector may be guilty of papering over the cracks and getting on with the job instead.
He said that, rather than having long holidays and a few lectures a week, permanent academics have seen their income cut by €20,000 a year in the last eight years.
At the same time, he told Today with Sean O’Rourke on RTÉ Radio One that 30% to 50% of lecturing is now done by casual staff with little security and some earning only €10,000 a year.
IFUT has joined with the Union of Students in Ireland, Teachers’ Union of Ireland, Siptu, and Impact in urging Mr Bruton to choose the option in the Cassells report of a fully publicly-funded education system.
“It is more than just a nice idea. It’s a real possibility. That’s why so many other countries in Europe offer it,” said a joint statement from all five unions.
IUA chair and University of Limerick president Prof Don Barry said it was appropriate that the funding options be considered by the Oireachtas, but it is equally important that the issue is confronted immediately.
However, IUA chief executive Ned Costello said it is difficult to see how higher education can continue to be funded almost entirely from the public purse.
The question, he said, could be whether the amount contributed by students is paid up front, or paid back when they have started earning enough to afford it.
However, the TUI said it believes in a higher education system that is free and which does not saddle young people with significant levels of debt.
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