The spectre of higher college fees is looming again as universities prepare to put pressure on the Government to tackle the issue of who will foot the growing bill for third-level education.
Universities are to launch a new campaign warning the Education Minister that he faces a stark choice: give more Exchequer money to third-level colleges or raise fees substantially from 2016.
Under Ruairi Quinn, the charge for students has been rising by €250 a year, to a maximum of €3,000 in September 2015. At the same time, Exchequer funding for third-level institutions has been falling.
A new Government will be in place by September 2016, and Mr Quinn has shown no appetite to pursue the debate over funding of third-level beyond 2015.
If full fees are introduced, students could end up paying at least €6,000-€7,000 a year – and more, depending on the course. A loan system would involve students paying back some or all of the cost after they graduate.
The State currently contributes about €1.1bn a year to third-level, but it is estimated that much more is needed – almost half as much again, €500m, by 2020.
The focus of a new campaign by the country's seven universities is the academic year starting September 2016, when the current Transition Year or Junior Cert students start college.
It's a debate that will not be welcomed either by Government or parents/students – one or both of which will end up paying more.
If ongoing constraints on national finances limit how much more the State can pay, the result is likely to be higher fees, a student loan system or a mixture of both.
But the Irish Universities Association (IUA) believes that, difficult though the choices may be, the debate cannot be put off any longer.
IUA chair and Trinity College Provost, Dr Paddy Prendergast, told the Irish Independent that a lack of public investment in higher education was endangering social and economic development.
The IUA has finalised plans for a campaign aimed at putting the funding issue centre-stage on the political agenda.
As part of the campaign, they are gathering information on the situation in other countries, and will host a symposium in September to debate options.
Dr Prendergast said that the development of Irish higher education would be "resource intensive".
He warned that "the serial scaling back of public investment in higher education is damaging our competitiveness and imperilling our social and economic development in the medium to longer term".
"It is important that Government works with the universities to develop an agreed funding model that is sustainable into the future, and gives the higher educator sector greater financial certainty so it can plan," he added.
Millions of euro have been cut from the university budgets in recent years, at the very time that student numbers are on the rise.
Applications for college entry this year have, to date, topped 73,000 – almost 10,000 more than they were in February 2008.
Those figures will continue to increase as a result of the baby boom that started in the late 1990s and the need for a third-level qualification in order to get a job in the so-called smart economy.
Universities are increasingly concerned about their ability to maintain quality and to compete in the global market in which they now operate.
The funding cuts, and their effect for instance, on staffing levels, are among the factors blamed for the slip by Irish universities in international rankings of third-level colleges.
Such global rankings are increasingly dominated by high spending universities in Asia and the US – putting them in a better position to catch the eye of research investors and the lucrative international student market.
The dramatic fall in Exchequer support means that the State is now contributing less than half the total income that universities generate.
Much of the rest comes from research grants and endowment, which raises another thorny issue for the universities – public sector employment controls inhibit their freedom to recruit staff and pay the market rate to attract necessary talent.
Katherine Donnelly, Education Editor