Pressure is growing on the Government to increase third-level funding next year as business leaders, students, and universities have all urged Education Minister Richard Bruton to begin reversing almost a decade of cuts.
Political decisions are already being sought from higher education presidents on the longer term and who should stump up the extra €600m a year needed by 2021, rising to €1bn in 2030, to sustain the sector.
But, after the latest world rankings showed the further decline for all Irish universities except NUI Galway, business organisation Ibec said Ireland’s highly-skilled labour force is under serious threat as a critical asset if funding is not urgently addressed.
“Apart from an immediate injection of public investment, we also need to look at developing a sustainable model for the sector,” said Ibec chief executive Danny McCoy.
While he said the basis for the OECD’s 2004 recommendation for an income-contingent student loan scheme has not changed, this is just one of three options put forward in the Cassells Report on the future of higher education in July.
The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) strongly opposes a loans system, but it is also seeking an immediate start to the restoration of public funding in the sector, with a €140m increase in 2017.
“Full implementation of the preferred model for funding higher education will not be decided for some considerable time, but there is no reason to postpone overdue and necessary investment in those areas of the sector which have been badly affected by diminishing resources over the past seven years,” said USI president Annie Hoey.
Since 2008, core State funding for third-level colleges has been cut by one-third from €1.4bn to €923m, and staffing controls have seen academic numbers fall from over 9,000 to under 8,000. But student numbers rose by nearly 40,000 to over 190,000 at the same time.
A spokesperson for Mr Bruton would not be drawn this week on whether any increases will be provided to the sector for 2017.
But Fianna Fáil education spokesperson Thomas Byrne said more resources are needed urgently. “Fianna Fáil has been consistently clear that €100m core funding needs to be invested, from general taxation, in our higher level institutions to enhance quality and bolster our universities’ competitiveness,” he said.
While the rankings do not reflect all activities in universities, particularly with an over-emphasis on sciences over humanities in research measures, the dramatic falls for Irish institutions illustrate the effects of the cuts. Trinity College Dublin has fallen from 43rd to 98th in the QS World University Rankings since 2009, University College Dublin from 89th to 176th, and University College Cork from 181st in 2011 to 283rd.
Irish Universities Association CEO Ned Costello said we can no longer hide from the corrosive effects of years of cutbacks. “An immediate injection of funding is required in the upcoming budget to fund more lecturers, deliver small group teaching and restore quality in our system,” he said.
There are mixed political views on whether the ideal long-term source of extra funding should be increased student fees backed by a loan scheme, significant hikes in public funding, higher industry contributions, or a combination of these measures.
But without a majority government in the Dáil, Mr Bruton wants the Oireachtas Education Committee, chaired by Fianna Fáil TD Fiona O’Loughlin, to come up with a consensus before he brings any proposal to Cabinet.
In its Budget 2017 submission, USI also wants further investment to include reducing the €3,000 student fee for undergraduates by at least €500.
While this would add around €34m to Mr Bruton’s third-level budget, USI says the benefits would include fewer students forced to work part-time or dropping out for financial reasons.
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