Irish universities could be facing a deficit of up to €200m due to the ongoing pandemic in the event of a “worst-case scenario”, higher education representatives have warned.
Even taking on board positive forecasts for 2021, universities are still estimated to be facing a combined deficit of at least €102m between this academic year and the last, according to the Irish Universities Association (IUA).
The group, which represents seven of Ireland’s universities, appeared before the Oireachtas education committee on Thursday.
When asked by Fianna Fáil senator Malcolm Byrne if there is a “worst-case estimate” for university finances, Jim Miley, director-general of the IUA said, “Worst case scenario, we had originally expected that the deficit could be up to up to €200m over the two year period. We’re hopeful now that’s closer to €100m. That’s based on us being in a much better position to predict that now.”
But it is “worrying”, he added.
“That [€100m figure] assumes also that we will be back to some level of normality by next September. If we’re not, we begin to lose some ground on that.”
TDs at the committee were urged to tackle the “chronic underfunding” of higher education and the “funding crisis” faced by the sector, which has been an issue for “some time”.
That’s according to Dr Patrick Prendergast, IUA chair and Provost at Trinity College Dublin. An EU evaluation of the Cassells report on the future of funding higher-level education is expected early in 2021.
"We note particularly his comments that this issue has been, and I quote, ‘shirked for far too long’ and that ‘2021 needs to be the year in which we settle this question’.”
Commercial revenues have been "devastated" by Covid-19, and student accommodation revenues have reduced significantly with average occupancy rates reduced to 65%. At the same time, costs have also increased due to requiring greater online and digital investment, and due to funding the substantial public health measures on-campus.
Meanwhile, universities are also concerned about the mental wellbeing of students working remotely, Dr Prendergast told the committee.
Preventing students from meeting each other in order to help stop the spread of Covid-19 is having an impact on their mental health, he said.
The IUA has outlined ways it can provide this safely in the New Year to Minister Harris, he added.
“This includes, not just classroom activity, but also some additional extracurricular activities to enable students to have at least some limited level of on-campus experience in order to protect their welfare and mental health.”