Rising numbers and cuts to funding push universities into 'danger zone'
The twin pressures of funding cuts and growing student numbers sees Ireland's university system classed as being in the "danger" zone, according to an analysis by the European Universities Association (EUA).
Ireland is rated with Iceland and Croatia as in the most perilous position in terms of public funding, in a review of 34 European countries and regions in the EUA Public Funding Observatory 2017 report.
Ireland's "system in danger" finding compares with "frontrunners" like Austria, Norway, Sweden and Switzerland, where funding increases are outpacing student growth, while other countries and regions fall somewhere in between.
Funding per student in Ireland is half what it was in 2008 and, while the Government has started to reverse the decline, the report highlights differences between Ireland and elsewhere.
The EUA analysis was cited as the seven universities launched their first joint charter, in which they commit to transforming capability and performance across the sector, but say their ambition requires a new dynamic.
The Irish Universities Association (IUA) six-point plan, 'Ireland's Future Talent - A Charter for Irish Universities', includes a call for more State funding as well as greater control over managing day-to-day affairs.
On funding, IUA director Jim Miley said there was a need to "get real", claiming too many politicians were "hiding behind the fig leaf of the option they don't like".
The universities are also seeking greater independence, in areas such as staffing levels and pay, a flexibility they say is essential if they are to compete with the best in Europe.
Mr Miley said a "transformation of how university education is controlled, including freeing universities from the grinding levers of State to allow them innovate and grow", was needed.
The report shows Ireland lags behind other countries in terms of the level of autonomy given to universities.
"While they wanted flexible operating structures and removal of restrictive employment measures, that would be matched on the universities' side by strong governance and accountability," he said.
Mr Miley said universities worldwide were transforming and the IUA Charter was designed to move Irish universities to the forefront of that change by jointly committing to a range of measures that better support students, staff and research.
"The political community now needs to step up to the challenge and match the ambition and commitment demonstrated by the universities," he said.
University College Cork president Professor Patrick O'Shea, who is chair of the IUA, said Ireland had long extolled the virtue of its indigenous talent, nurtured by the education system, but "a decade of under-investment by the State, the demographic bulge and a dynamic, competitive international education environment forces us all to confront stark realities".
He said it was incumbent on "the State, on universities and on society to implement initiatives to develop and fully realise our national talent".
Prof O'Shea said the importance of the charter was that it underpinned a commitment to substantial change. "It calls out the challenges. It identifies solutions."