UCC president Dr Michael Murphy said the price of widening third-level access was the inability of colleges to provide the best education for top students.
He told business leaders in Cork that with economic recovery more dependent than ever on the ingenuity and competence of our young people, resources used to improve third-level access should be diverted to the most talented students.
Dr Murphy admitted: “It has become unpopular, indeed politically incorrect, to voice concerns about the needs of academically talented students.”
He said the state had rightly promoted expanding third-level education over the past 15 years, with programmes to help students from socially disadvantaged backgrounds, with disabilities and mature students.
Figures from the Higher Education Authority (HEA) show the proportion of students starting college aged 23 or over has risen from 4.5% to 20% since 1998.
But he told business leaders at a Cork Chamber breakfast there is increasing evidence of a price being paid for widening access.
The UCC president said opportunities were created for the brightest students through scholarships when resources were scarce in the past. But the universities’ ability to maximise the talents of the intellectually gifted has diminished as expanding higher education has brought weaker students who need more academic support from fewer staff.
“There is extensive anecdotal evidence of many of our brightest students emigrating after completing Leaving Certificate for overseas education and never returning,” he said.
“The ICT age, the space age, the nuclear age, the Hollywood age, all were mostly sparked by those in the top 2% to 5% of academic performers, who attended schools and universities that met their needs in innovative ways. Irish universities can so do, but must be empowered to so do, again, by the state,” he said.
The number of third-level students has risen 15% to 160,000 in three years, but colleges have 10% fewer academic staff than two years ago. As well as reduced Government funding for colleges, grants paid to 41% of all third-level students will be cut by 3% next year, in addition to cuts totalling 9% over the past two years.
Dr Murphy said universities needed greater freedom on how to spend limited resources and called for an end to stifling Government micro-management.
He has a €232,151 salary, the highest of any university president, and is one of nine university figures paid more than €200,000 for whom Education Minister Ruairí Quinn suggested a voluntary cap at that figure. The Department of Education said it is writing to the universities to find out if there have been any offers of voluntary reductions for the employees involved.
Dr Murphy said the Government should find banks in cash-rich nations to front-fund a loan scheme for tens of thousands of Irish students expected to enrol in the next 15 years.
“The validity of greater personal contributions to funding higher education which has always conferred significant individual advantage in lifetime earnings, must be squarely recognised by Government,” he said.
A recent HEA report said higher education quality was suffering because of a funding shortfall of over €400 million a year. It said student enrolments might have to be capped to prevent further quality erosion if the gap could not be filled from fees or other sources.