Thousands of school-leavers will face a dramatic shortage of college places every year if higher education does not urgently get more funding, a new report warns.
The stark message from an expert group is that the existing funding system for third-level is "insufficient to maintain quality" and "unsustainable".
It leaves the Government facing the choice of either diverting extra Exchequer funds into education or hiking third-level registration fees.
The report tracks expected growth in school-leaver numbers in coming years and predicts a shortfall of college places of over 20,000 by 2028. If this happens, CAO points are likely to rocket.
The document is the first in a series on higher education funding intended to kick-start a national debate on who should pay for third-level education.
The report is likely to become a major topic ahead of the next general election.
The thorny issue of a return of third-level fees, or an alternative such as a student loan system, will be centre-stage in the expert group's final report, which is due later this year.
Currently, third level students pay an annual contribution of €2,750, which will rise to €3,000 next September.
However, no decisions have been taken about what should happen after the 2015/16 academic year - ensuring it will be a live topic in next year's general election.
The first report, which looks at the value and scale of higher education, is being discussed today at a round table in the Department of Education.
As part of efforts to generate informed discussion, the round table meetings will involve representatives of students, parents, universities and institutes of technology, the further education sector, government departments, businesses, employer and enterprise agencies and community organisations.
The expert group was set up by former Education Minister Ruairi Quinn and is chaired by Peter Cassells, the former general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trades Unions. It is expected to present six reports, with the final one outlining the options for funding higher education.
Currently, 56pc of 18-19-year-olds go on to third level, and if that rate was to continue, the demand for first year college places would rise gradually from the current 42,000 to about 56,000 in 2028. But, according to the report, if a lack of funding forced colleges to hold first year places at current levels, it would mean a cut to about 35,000 new entrants, around the figure for the year 2000. That would mean only about 45pc of school leavers would be going to college, rather than 56pc.
The report notes how our higher education system has been stretched with a 9pc cut in income, an 11pc cut in staffing and a 16pc increase in student numbers.
It outlines the need for Ireland to rebuild after the economic crisis, and says that will require a significant investment in education at all levels.
It acknowledges that the need for further investment is coming at a time when, despite stabilisation of the national finances, public resources and household incomes remain stretched and there are multiple conflicting choices.
The report highlights the value of higher education to the economy, society and to the individual, in terms of employment and financial reward.