THE president of University College Dublin (UCD) has warned that the return of higher fees for third-level students cannot be put off any longer.
Dr Hugh Brady said the ongoing reduction in state funding to higher education was in danger of putting quality at risk and would see Ireland losing its best students, as well as its international reputation.
He made his comments in an exclusive interview to the Irish Independent ahead of his retirement from the helm at UCD, Ireland's biggest university after a 10-year period.
This year, college students are paying a contribution of €2,500, which is set to rise to €3,000 in 2015 -- but it does not compensate for ongoing cuts in state funding to third-level.
Currently, there are no plans to increase the student contribution beyond €3,000, but the issue will come centre-stage again in the new year with a discussion paper on third-level funding.
The paper, being prepared by the Higher Education Authority (HEA), is expected to raise the spectre of a higher contribution by students.
Third-level colleges are facing the double challenge of increasing student numbers, while at the same time being given reduced State financial support. There is broad agreement that more funding is required, but the question is who pays.
The HEA paper may refer to options such as a loan scheme, which would see students paying back the cost of their degree programme once their income hits a certain level.
Dr Brady said the decision on funding third-level "has been put off for almost a decade and you have to look what logically happens if you continue to shrink the state investment".
He added: "Quality suffers and if quality suffers you lose Irish students but also your reputation, and Ireland cannot not afford for its global reputation to take a knock." In the past five years, state funding per student has dropped by about 30pc and Dr Brady said it was hard to see a reversal of those cuts. The Exchequer now accounts for only about 50pc of UCD's annual revenue of about €500m, which does not include research income.
He said the time had now come for a higher contribution by students as third-level colleges have cut their costs, are a lot more efficient and have diversified their income streams.
Dr Brady said that the Irish student contribution is about one quarter of the £9,000 which UK universities may request, and which, he said, some Irish parents were prepared to pay.
He said UK universities were using this funding "as a war chest to try and recruit the best Irish students, who, if they went abroad for undergraduate education, were likely to put down roots and maybe not return.
"Irish universities have always outperformed because smart students stay here," he said.
But he warned that the UK universities appreciated this and were attracting them with "a very good offering".