Lecturers are calling for an emergency plan for universities, which they believe could be facing financial ruin due to a likely collapse in the number of foreign students enrolling in the next academic year due to the Covid-19 crisis.
With international students accounting for up to a third of fee income for many colleges across the country, third-level staff lay-offs may be inevitable without an urgent rescue package for the sector, the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT) has warned.
It is calling for the introduction of emergency supports for higher education, similar to those implemented for business.
Urgent action is needed to prevent the collapse of course delivery, according to Joan Donegan, the general secretary of the IFUT.
Decisions around funding, as well as some urgent non-cash issues, need to be prioritised as the future of hundreds of thousands of students and thousands of staff are in jeopardy, Ms Donegan warned.
“In particular, the many contract and precariously-employed lecturing, tutorial and research staff on which most colleges increasingly depend, face immediate lay-off.
“Without these staff, colleges will be unable to deliver many courses or maintain educational standards.
“On one funding issue alone, our colleges face financial ruin due to the likely collapse in foreign student intake next year,” she said.
“These students account for around one tenth of the student body but, due to their much higher fee structures, deliver up to a third of fee income for many colleges.
“Colleges face further major income loss from the collapse of summer course activity, extreme difficulty in obtaining new research projects, and loss of student accommodation income,” she said.
The Department of Education needs to have an open discussion around college resumption dates, approval of future new online or other learning models, and the length and structure of the next academic year.
“Without such inclusivity, academic planning by staff will be impossible,” said Ms Donegan.
“Without clarity, many thousands of Leaving Cert students may simply opt to defer enrolment, causing further strain on the very existence of some education institutions.
“Without an urgent Government rescue package, staff lay-offs and collapse of course delivery may be the inevitable outcome.”
The Australian government recently approved a €10bn relief package for its higher education, she added.
“We need similar innovative thinking and policies here as a matter of urgency,” she said.
“Above all, academic staff and planners who will have to plan the rollout of education courses in the ‘new normal’ must be at the centre of discussion and consultation. The very future of our economy and society depends on educating our young people effectively at this time.
“Any new programme for government must also include a clear commitment to prioritise a survival plan for higher education.”
The third-level sector was already facing a funding shortfall before the outbreak. In 2016, the Cassells Report identified the need for an extra €600m a year by 2021 to sustain the sector.