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Friday 22 August 2014

College fee hikes back on the table for students

Katherine Donnelly

Published 12/06/2014 | 02:30

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Minister for Education and Skills Ruairi Quinn. Photo: Jason Clarke Photography
Minister for Education and Skills Ruairi Quinn. Photo: Jason Clarke Photography

An expert group is being set up to examine who should pay the growing bill for higher education, as a new report warns that the quality of graduates from cash-strapped Irish colleges is at risk.

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Hiking student fees will be an obvious option for consideration by the group, which was announced by Education Minister Ruairi Quinn following publication of the first report on the performance of the Irish third-level sector.

Mr Quinn already has a report from the Higher Education Authority (HEA) on future funding of the system, which has not been published. But he said this group, which will provide an interim report by the end of the year, would build on that work.

The Higher Education System Performance First Report 2014-16, published yesterday, gives an unprecedented overview of the third-level sector as it embarks on a programme of massive change.

It shows the system is performing well against international benchmarks, but that colleges are straining under the twin pressures of reduced government funding and 25,000 extra students.

Over the six years of austerity, state financial support for third level has plunged from €1.4bn in 2007-08 to €939m now. And it now accounts for only 56pc of all college income, compared with 76pc in 2007-08.

It will fall to 51pc in 2015-16.

Between 2008 and 2014, total income per student decreased by 22pc, raising concerns about how the system can deliver a quality education and produce graduates who can compete in the global marketplace.

Higher education reforms already under way include college mergers, regional clusters and mission plans for individual colleges to ensure that each plays to its strengths

and eliminates waste such as unnecessary course duplication. A new performance funding scheme is also being introduced that could see colleges losing up to 10pc of their state grants if they don't meet certain targets from next year.

The HEA has signed off on ‘compacts’ with the 39 publicly-funded colleges, which will be used to measure their future performance.

On the plus side, the HEA performance report shows graduate employment has bounced back to pre-economic crisis levels. But it also highlights ‘stresses’ that pose a risk to quality, including:

l Increased student-staff ratios to 19:1, compared with 15:1 in other countries.

l Reduced research time because academics have been diverted to lecturing.

l Signs of a dip in employer satisfaction rates about the quality of graduates.

l A rise in dropout rates among students who were on Level 7/6 (ordinary degree/higher certificate) courses.

l Lack of funding for new third level buildings.

University College Dublin President Professor Andrew Deeks said success in implementing the reforms was dependent on allowing university leadership to have flexibility in the management of human resources.

He also demanded a policy that funded universities at a level comparable with Ireland’s international peers.

Professor Deeks said having come to Ireland from the UK and Australia, he found Irish university staff worked harder and longer than many of their international peers.

Irish Universities Association (IUA) chief executive Ned Costello said the report presented important evidence of the link between investment in universities and economic growth and social cohesion, but also highlighted the vulnerabilities which arise from under-investment.

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