Thursday 17 August 2017

College places to be capped as funds crisis hits

New government report advocates higher fees or lower numbers as sector at 'breaking point'

DANIEL McCONNELL EXCLUSIVE

STUDENT places in Irish universities and other third-level colleges will have to be capped or fees will urgently have to increase to address the major funding crisis in the sector, a new government report concludes.

Despite rigorous objections in recent weeks from the Union of Students in Ireland (USI), the report makes it clear the sector is at breaking point and if numbers are not limited or a proper funding model put in place, there will be a detrimental impact on quality standards.

The report, 'Sustainability Study Aligning Participation, Quality and Funding', commissioned by Education Minister Ruairi Quinn and seen by the Sunday Independent, is the basis of discussions around education at the cabinet table ahead of the Budget, according to senior government sources.

"A combination of declining investment, reduced staff numbers and growth in overall student numbers now present such a threat to quality that they override the incentive in the funding models to continue growth in student numbers," the report warns.

"The ability of the sector to continue to meet the demand from students and to provide skilled graduates which will be needed to underpin economic recovery, is severely restricted," it adds.

"Without change, it is likely that individual institutions will continue to limit the numbers of new entrants to higher education so as not to exceed their capacity to teach, and to protect the quality of the student experience," it adds.

The matter is to be discussed by the Higher Education Authority (HEA) on Tuesday. A massive increase in the numbers attending third level over the past decade combined with declining budgets has brought the crisis to a head.

Increased numbers currently at school age as well as larger numbers of those already in the workforce looking to upskill will mean demand for college places will continue to grow further, despite the pressure on budgets.

If funding per student remains constant at today's value, then a further €419m would be required to meet projected demand in 2020 and €723m in 2030. The report recommends a number of options if such a limit on places is to be avoided.

"Greater efficiencies and effectiveness should be vigorously pursued; financial planning framework for HE should move to a three-year multi- annual basis; the HEA should review its funding models so as to ensure that any potential for continued growth should be encouraged and supported," it states.

The report also recommends in the short term that if and when further declines in public funding for higher education become necessary, the level of student contribution should be increased to compensate.

"Without the capacity to increase public investment, this can only mean raising the level of contribution to the cost of education from students," it says.

The report also warns that financial barriers will arise that will "prevent the realisation of talent and potential at the individual and national level, unless measures such as student loan facilities are also put in place".

USI president Gary Redmond said any increases in fees or cuts in student supports would be a "death sentence for education" and would severely undermine the country's economic recovery.

"Every single cent spent on education is an investment in economic recovery and an investment in Ireland's future. The same families that have to pay college fees are the same families who are struggling," he said.

Sunday Independent

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