The President of University of Limerick has called on political parties to “make third-level funding a national priority” and accused the outgoing government of cutting supports to the sector.
Addressing students at the start of UL’s Winter Conferring ceremonies, Dr Des Fitzgerald said: "Let’s be honest, our universities are good, but not good enough."
He said the primary mission of higher education is to mobilise knowledge for the benefits of society adding: "Any further delay in addressing the challenges facing our universities puts at risk the quality of our higher education system – a system that is already showing severe strain.
“To quote, we face a fate of competent inconsequence, an artful execution of not much, instead of the innovation and excellence that Irish universities are known for.”
A sharp “decline” of Irish universities in the global rankings has corresponded with the fall in government support, Dr Fitzgerald said.
He said there had been "a fall of 43% in fee income, a fall in support for fundamental research, the near abolition of capital investment - and underlying all of this, a devaluing of scholarship for its own sake”.
The UK, he said, is seizing the opportunities and is committed to doubling its research budget in the years to come whereas, according to Dr Fitzgerald, the Irish state has been diluting its commitments.
Dr Fitzgerald said:
With just 50% of funding to Irish universities now coming from the state compared with 90% 10 years ago, the deficit in funding has been filled by Irish universities and philanthropy.
He said further government investment in the third-level sector was critical for societal success.
Dr Fitzgerald said he hoped politicians who were looking to form the next government would reveal before then, their plans to “invest in and not forget UL, barely 50 years of age”.
“The Government’s own Cassells Report, citing a crisis in the sector, called for investment in national ambition and identified the critical funding challenge facing Higher Education,” he said.
“Four years on, the crisis is just as great as the stark fact remains that core funding provided by the State is falling.
“The independent Oireachtas Parliamentary Budget Office recently described Higher Education as ‘a cornerstone of the Irish economy, but it is under significant financial pressure and with an unsustainable funding model’.”
“This is a national issue that must be addressed. Ireland’s talent and knowledge allow us to compete globally and our higher education system is the primary incubator for that talent,” Dr Fitzgerald warned.