EDUCATION Minister Ruairi Quinn has targeted the huge number of courses in engineering, business and law for cuts under the third-level education reform plan.
Unnecessary duplication in these areas, in both the universities and institutes of technology (ITs), is costing the State millions every year.
There are 271 third-level business and law courses, with a total of 26,500 students, which cost the Exchequer €163m.
Meanwhile the 130 engineering programmes, with almost 16,000 students across universities and the IT sector, cost €147m.
There can be huge disparity in the number of students on each course – while TCD's popular Business Economic and Social Studies course (BESS) has an annual intake of about 230 students, the figure for other courses could be as low as 15.
The annual €2,250 student contribution covers only a fraction of the cost of third-level education – put at about €8,000 for an engineering student and €7,000 for a business/law undergraduate.
Rationalisation of courses was one of a number of priority areas identified by Mr Quinn at a meeting yesterday with college heads, where he outlined his vision for a redesigned system to cope with growing demand, get better value for money, while also delivering quality. He wants to see change starting by 2014.
Greater collaboration and co-operation between third-level colleges, within and between the university and IT sectors, is key, and one way the minister wants that achieved is through the elimination of duplicate courses.
He confirmed that he does not envisage forced mergers of any of the universities, or mergers of institutes of technology with existing universities.
However, he sees scope for mergers between ITs and questioned whether it was still necessary to have 14 of them, given modern technology, better communications, upgraded roads and better transport systems.
Some merged institutes of technology may be upgraded to Technological University status, while others are intended to form regional clusters, under a common administrative structure.
Mr Quinn was critical yesterday of the colleges' own views about how they could contribute to the reform agenda for being overly protective of their own patch.
They were "stronger on individual aspirations and weaker in terms of collectively addressing some of the issues we need to confront," he said.
Mr Quinn urged "all institutions to take a long hard look at their future sustainability and their place in the higher education system, especially if their submissions have been predicated on wishful thinking".