THE Government is spending more on second-level students than it does on those attending college, adding further fuel to the debate over the funding crisis at third level.
While colleges can plug some of the gap with income from other sources, including research and fees from non- EU students, there is an acceptance that significantly more funding is required.
The Government spends about €1.3bn a year on higher education, but almost half as much again – €500m a year – will be needed by 2020 to deliver a quality education to growing numbers of students.
Third-level education tends to need higher levels of spending due to the specialised nature of programmes.
Equipment, books and facilities are expensive, and the clinical years of medical training, for example, require students to have access to the latest technologies and resources.
In Ireland, the spend per student at third level has fallen by almost 14pc in real terms compared with a decade ago, while spending at primary and second level increased significantly in the same period.
In 2011, funding per third-level student was €9,091, €22 per student less than that for second-level pupils at €9,113. At primary level the figure was €6,368.
In the 10 years up to 2011, funding per primary pupil increased by 31pc from historically low levels while at second level the increase was 27pc.
The collapse in third-level funding has occurred in the past two years, while primary and second-level spending per pupil declined marginally.
Mike Jennings, of the Irish Federation of University Teachers, said the latest figures highlighted a crisis in third-level funding.
He said he did not "want even one cent to be taken away from primary or second-level education" as all sectors were under severe pressure.
"But the drastic reduction in funding to third level is especially startling and must be reversed immediately," he said.
Higher Education Authority chief executive Tom Boland said that through innovative approaches many institutions, especially universities, had increased their revenue from non-exchequer sources.
But he added: "The figures, however, highlight the urgency of addressing the issue as to whether Ireland is adequately investing in higher education as a key contributor to future economic sustainability."
Education Minister Ruairi Quinn has told colleges that the issue of more funding will not be addressed until he is sure he is getting value for money for the current investment.