Minister: We'll have to make tough decision on college funds
Education Minister Jan O'Sullivan has said that decisions need to be made about the future funding of higher education in Ireland.
But she said she would await the report of an expert group set up by her predecessor Ruairi Quinn, which is due to issue its final findings by the end of 2015.
The minister, pictured, was speaking against the backdrop of a major Irish Universities Association (IUA) conference, the main focus of which was the "growing crisis" of funding third-level.
Cuts in State support, both in terms of direct grants and staff numbers, coupled with soaring student number has stretched the system.
The funding squeeze is blamed for the decline in the standing of Irish universities in global league tables.
She told the conference "there is an imperative now to carefully consider how higher education is funded to enable its sustainable development."
Peter Cassells, former general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trades Unions (ICTU) and one of the architects of social partnership in the late 1980s, said part of their brief was to issue interim reports in order to stimulate debate.
IUA president Dr Patrick Prendergast, Provost of Trinity College, told the conference that if something wasn't done on funding "the staff-student ratio will continue to deteriorate and our campuses and buildings will fall into disrepair and decay; we'll continue to slip down the rankings until we have no universities in the top 300 and we're no longer recognised globally for the quality of our education".
Discussions on who pays for higher education inevitably raises the question of higher student fees and Dr Prendergast said "we should admit openly that in this country, we need students to invest in their own education".
He said he understood the imperative to bring greater social mobility into the system - a motivation behind the abolition of fees in 1995 - but "unfortunately abolishing fees did not bring greater social mobility".
Professor Prendergast said equity of access was a priority but it "shouldn't be confused with the fees question".
Other sources of private funding discussed at the conference were investment from industry, research contracts and philanthropy.
Patricia Mangeol, a policy analyst with the international think-tank, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), said Ireland was in a group of countries with low tuition fees and less-developed student support systems, such as grants or loans (to cover fees).