However, he is giving no clues if he will help address shortfalls in Budget 2017 next month, in which he is under growing pressure to begin reversing several years of public funding cuts to the sector.
In this week’s Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings, University College Dublin dropped out of the top 200. NUI Galway and Royal College of Surgeons improved to join UCD in the top 250, and other lower-ranked institutions maintaining their positions.
However, with the negative impact of funding and staffing cuts on their scores in some ranking indicators, the Irish Universities Association (IUA) says an immediate €75m injection of extra funding is needed in the upcoming budget just to begin rebuilding quality and ensuring sustainability.
The same amount would be needed in the non-university higher education sector, its budget submission said. The IUA pointed to the 21% drop in total funding for each university student since 2008, but said the portion which comes from the State has been halved.
Andrew Deeks, president of UCD which fell 29 places to 205th in the 2016 THE rankings, said the national funding system is broken and the cumulative effect of a lack of investment has now reached a tipping point.
Fianna Fáil is pushing for a major increase in Government funding to third-level in Budget 2017 but has so far devised no party policy on the longer-term funding question.
The working group chaired by Peter Cassells recommended options in its report in July, including a ‘study now, pay later’ fees loan system, with which the Government could begin to address the long-term issues.
However, while Mr Bruton accepts action must be taken, he will not bring proposals to Cabinet until a political consensus is reached from discussions of the Cassells report by the all-party Oireachtas Education Committee. The committee has not yet pencilled in any dates for hearings or meetings with witnesses on the matter.
A spokesperson for Mr Bruton told thethat the minister would like the group, chaired by Fianna Fáil TD Fiona O’Loughlin, to consider the report as quickly as possible.
“This is a very important issue and there’s a commitment in the Programme for Government that the Oireachtas Committee would consider the Cassells report,” said Mr Bruton. “We would like them to consider this as a matter of urgency.”
Fianna Fáil education spokesman and committee member Thomas Byrne said the issue needs long consideration, but he expects it to be early next year before members thrash out what they hear from interest groups and experts at various meetings planned between now and year’s end.
Mr Bruton’s spokesperson indicated that a recommendation on a preferred funding system would be well in time for Mr Bruton to bring a plan to fellow ministers in good time to finalise any changes for the budget in a year’s time, which could possibly see any new funding mechanism in place for 2018.
However, considerations for next year’s education budget, which he is discussing with Public Expenditure Minister Paschal Donohoe, remain closely guarded.