Colleges have warned in recent years that the growing intake of school-leavers and other students — mainly due to population growth — is impacting on quality of the education they provide.
However, analysis by an expert group — tasked by the Government with recommending the extent to which taxpayers and students should fund higher education — suggests that a 28% enrolment growth is likely if participation continues at current rates.
The 56% who go on from Leaving Certificate to third-level is one of the highest rates in Europe, but with projected rises in number coming through schools, keeping it at that level could see enrolments jump from 165,000 to 212,000 by 2028.
The expert group predicts that, even if participation rates were cut by 5%, student numbers would rise by 26,000 in the same period.
The figures are set out in a consultation paper discussed with stakeholders yesterday, setting out the key issues around demand for higher education and the associated benefits for students, the economy and society.
“Current demographics mean that even in the event of a significant drop in the participation rate, the system is still facing considerable growth in numbers,” says the document from the expert group, chaired by former Irish Congress of Trade Unions general secretary Peter Cassells.
The document also acknowledges the impact of a 15% cut to public funding in the last six years, and says internal efficiencies and cost-cutting that facilitated increased enrolments of recent years have now been exhausted.
While numbers being admitted to third-level education have grown by 5,000 to 41,500 between 2007 and 2012 alone, the Cassells report says the recession has had a further negative impact on the likelihood of people from poorer backgrounds going to college. The numbers qualifying for grant support to pay the rising student contribution — now at €3,000 a year — rose from 37% to 51% from 2008 to 2013.
The higher earnings potential of third-level graduates over lower-qualified workers is also flagged — they earn twice what someone with just the Leaving Certificate does, compared to a 70% income premium across the OECD. This higher earning potential is one of the strongest arguments for the introduction of full tuition fees for undergraduates, a question the expert group must deal with in its final report due with Education Minister Jan O’Sullivan by the end of the year.
However, the discussion paper also flags the fact that the average higher earnings mask wide variations, with many graduates working in low-skill jobs. It also highlights a UK study showing 17% of economic growth in the decade to 2005 was down to graduates’ workplace skills, and the importance of more quality graduates to the growth and improvement of health, education and public administration.
The annual income of publicly funded colleges has dropped by €150m to €1.7bn since 2007, but State grants fell from €1.4bn to €860m in the same time. The increased student contribution now accounts for €400m of their income each year, up from €91m in 2007, although up to half it is paid by taxpayers through grant support.