Third-level funding gap could surpass predicted €600m

The €600m funding shortage predicted in third-level colleges by 2021 could be even higher due to an unexpected rises in student numbers, universities have warned.

In a renewed call on the Government to act on the recommendations of the 2016 report of an expert group on higher education funding, the Irish Universities Association (IUA) said projected increases in student numbers may have been underestimated.

The €220m increase it seeks in public non-capital investment in the sector includes €130m for universities.

But of that amount in its own seven colleges, it said €40m would only cover increases due to staff under the terms of national pay agreements and other rises that it says have been centrally imposed.

The call comes just weeks after Peter Cassells, who chaired the expert group that produced the report published in July 2016, urged political decisions to be made on solutions to the funding crisis.

The IUA submission ahead of October’s budget noted it was now the midway point between the base year of 2015 in the Cassells report and the first key milestone in 2021 when the experts said an additional €600m a year of core funding would be needed just to maintain standards and quality in the third-level system.

“While a decision on the options for a new funding model has been put on the long finger, the analysis of funding needs as laid down by Cassells has not been disputed,” the report said.

In addition to the current funding, IUA members are seeking an extra €104m for capital refurbishments, including €7.7m for works it says are needed for emergency health and safety-related works.

More than 70% of the money would go to refurbishing buildings, completing a backlog of maintenance and modernising existing capital stocks, but the €104m is just the start of a €530m refurbishment investment the universities want to see over the next five years.

IUA director general Jim Miley described as calamitous the 50% drop in the amount of State non-capital funding universities receive for each student since 2008.

Figures provided by IUA show student numbers at third-level colleges other than institutes of technology increased by 28% from 95,292 to 122,121 last year, but total State funding fell by over a third from €831m to €537m.

Mr Miley said there was a welcome but modest initial increase in core funding in this year’s budget, but they have already seen a fall in Irish universities’ position in international rankings.

“Without significant additional investment, universities cannot enhance their efforts to improve access and better respond to skills needs across the economy.”

Mr Miley said it is essential that the funding gap is bridged for any meaningful progress to be achieved on Government ambitions to have a “best in Europe” higher education system.

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