With less than seven weeks to the October budget, Mr Quinn said he will not know for another month how much he has to save from his €9bn spending.
He was speaking at University College Cork (UCC) where a small group of students protested about reports that student grants may be facing further cuts next year. The minister could not offer them any consolation that grant payments or eligibility levels would be left unchanged.
“I don’t want to frighten anybody, that is why I don’t want to respond to individual questions because an answer to a question can become a forecast that it is going to happen,” he said.
Earlier this year, he repeatedly said he had to find €44m of savings in 2014, but in June he said a further €20m could be needed after bowing to public pressure and deciding not to implement further teaching cuts to children with disabilities.
He was asked what the current target is, given recent reports the figure may now be as high as €100m.
“They range at the moment, and I am being quite frank, from €100m back down to €44m. We will have clarity in the next four to five weeks in relation to that,” he said.
UCC Students’ Union deputy president Annie Hoey said the most vulnerable college students are already pushed to the limit.
“The standard grant for a student living away from home is around €86 a week, which is still cheaper than the €100 a week they give someone coming out of school on the dole, and the returns on investing in higher education are well proven. So cutting the amount or reducing the eligibility levels are going to make a huge difference for thousands of students,” Ms Hoey said.
Mr Quinn said his department increased welfare funding given to colleges through the Higher Education Authority to help students struggling to make ends meet. But this was done largely to deal with the fallout of delays in grants issued by Student Universal Support Ireland (Susi).
“We have changed the administration and the way in which Susi is operated and that seems to be much more satisfactory than before, though it is early days yet,” Mr Quinn said.
“There is certainty in relation to the student registration charge which in two years time will finish out at €3,000,” he said.
“We are trying, in the higher education landscape, to look at where we can get savings and economies of scale so we can put higher education finance on a sound basis.”