An urgent plan to safeguard the Irish third-level sector from serious financial fallout due to the Covid-19 crisis must be a top priority for the Government.
That is the warning as Irish universities face potential revenue losses running into the hundreds of millions due to the Covid-19 crisis.
This is through the expected decline in enrollments from international students, and from lost income streams over the summer months due to the current restrictions on movements.
Supporting universities and higher education will have to be at the top of the list when it comes to new Government formation, according to Thomas Byrne, Fianna Fáil’s education spokesman.
“Because they really are key to the recovery of the economy, and to society in the aftermath of this. Universities are going to be central to our economic recovery and central to any programme to Government I would imagine, and yes they certainly will need money.”
Many are facing serious challenges due to the expected drop in income, he added: “If you look at the Cassells Report, which is still relevant, whichever option you chose still requires substantial State funding.
"That’s going to be required. I think we will have to drill down into the numbers to see what support is needed from the State. Clearly there is not going to be any changes to the way students are charged in the short-term so it will require substantial State funding.”
Even before the crisis hit, third-level institutes faced financial challenges, according to Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire, Sinn Féin education spokesman: “It has now become critical as an impact of the Covid-19 restrictions. There is an urgent need for the Department of Education and the Minister to engage with the Irish Universities Association (IUA) and with all the third level institutions to talk about finances and sustainability.
"That discussion needs to begin straight away."
As previously reported, universities are currently reviewing recruitment processes. This week, the University of Limerick told staff that more than 80 positions currently vacant are mostly expected to remain open for the foreseeable future due to its recruitment freeze.
"Recruitment freezes and embargoes are very often a blunt instrument," Mr Ó Laoghaire said.
"As we’ve seen in the health care sector and other sectors, they often don’t take into account the specific needs that will exist very urgently in certain parts of the university. There is a financial deficit there, there is no doubt about that, and discussions need to begin with the Department on how that funding gap can be resolved."
A funding guarantee to ensure that colleges remain viable and to protect staffing levels is critical. That is according to Joan Donegan, the general secretary of the Irish Federation of University Teachers (IFUT): “Students and staff alike are being left in ongoing limbo."
There is uncertainty about the status of thousands of casually employed and part-time staff, or whether higher education will receive emergency supports, she added.
Meanwhile, fears have been raised over thousands of Irish researchers affected by the current shutdown. James Lawless, the Fianna Fáíl Science spokesman, fears there may be an imminent crisis in the sector, which includes 14,500 fixed-term researchers: "They cannot perform their experiments, work in their laboratories or attend their universities and they also are not eligible for the wage subsidy scheme."
Universities and labs are keeping people employed but funds are depleting, he added.
“The worry is that when the time comes to get moving on projects again the resources simply won’t be there. If these experiments are not finished we are potentially losing, not just three months of work, but in many cases three years."