EDUCATION Minister Ruairi Quinn will tell third-level college heads today they must get their houses in order before receiving any extra money to deal with expanding student numbers.
The minister will outline the reforms he wants in higher education at a meeting with the heads of universities, institutes of technology and other colleges.
His key message will be the need to ensure that the system is delivering value for money, before extra funding is considered.
Mr Quinn wants to see a range of changes including college mergers, greater collaboration and an end to unnecessary duplication of courses. There are, for instance, 30 schools of engineering, many offering similar programmes.
The minister is setting out his stall against the backdrop of significant challenges facing the higher education system.
Third-level colleges are feeling a double pinch, with cuts in state funding putting a squeeze on finances at the time that student numbers are growing.
Experts say the higher education system, which currently costs about €1.3bn a year, will need an extra €500m a year, within about five years.
The big decision that will eventually have to be taken is whether that extra funding should come from the State or by asking students to pay more.
Mr Quinn has no plans to ask students for more, beyond his proposals to raise the Student Contribution Charge – currently €2,250 – to €3,000 by 2015.
But the economic think-tank the ESRI has fuelled the debate with a new report saying the time had come to consider a state-backed student loan scheme, which would see graduates repaying the cost of their degree once their salaries hit a certain level.
Mr Quinn told the Irish Independent that the issue of funding was "a challenge going into the future. We are going to have to look at a system that enables everyone who wants to go to college to be able to go there in a manner and way that is affordable for them and the rest of the country."
But he is adamant there is no question of tackling the funding issue, until he sees more evidence of greater efficiencies.
"I want to see what room there is for economies, the discontinuance of duplicate courses and other means to reduce costs. It is not that I want to take money out of the system, I want that money to be better used," he told the Dail this week.
Only after such savings were introduced, he said, could the question of addressing the funding gap be tackled.
If colleges don't come up with satisfactory savings plans by the end of next year, he says he will take a more direct hand in the matter.