Student loans debate reignites as universities fall in rankings
The debate on student loans reignited after startling university rankings showed Ireland can no longer claim a top 100 spot worldwide.
Employers called for urgent Government action on funding for third-level education, including higher student fees linked to a loan system.
Ibec renewed its call in the wake of the latest global rankings, showing a continuing slide in Ireland's standings.
Trinity College Dublin dropped from 88th to 104th, while the country's largest university UCD is down 25 places to 193rd in the QS World University Rankings.
Five of the seven universities fell, as well as Dublin Institute of Technology.
The University of Limerick and Maynooth University held their own.
The employers body expressed "alarm" at the decline, which was described as "a direct result of dire under-investment into the higher education sector over the last decade".
Ibec's senior executive for education and innovation policy Claire McGee said it was damaging Ireland's international reputation and its ability to attract and embed foreign direct investment to create more high-quality and technology jobs.
It was also having an impact on the universities' ability to recruit leading international researchers and their teams, to undertake cutting edge science and innovations to support Irish business.
Ms McGee said: "The lack of investment does not match or support the national ambitions to be a global education and innovation leader."
- Read more: No Irish university in the world’s top 100 as the country’s higher education sector falls further in global rankings
She said Ireland's return to economic growth and success was underpinned by highly talented and educated people.
Investment in education, particularly higher education, must be a national infrastructure priority, she added.
Ibec has long called for the Government to act on recommendations from the international think-tank the OECD in 2002 "to introduce a more balanced funding streams including income-contingent student loans".
More recently, the employers' organisation has supported the implementation of a new funding model for third level, based on the Cassells' Report 2015, which set out a range of options, including student loans.
Cassells said the higher education system needed an extra €600m a year and the alternative to higher fees linked to loans would be a significant increase in State funding.
However, there is no political support for student loans and there is no appetite within Government for a significant increase in direct funding.
The Cassells Report has been shelved for the lifetime of this Government, at least, with a further detailed economic analysis of its options now under way.
Fianna Fáil education spokesperson Thomas Byrne said the rankings showed that the Government's current approach to higher education was "failing".
He said: "The current inertia surrounding third level education policy is unsustainable and is only serving to undermine Irish universities."
Labour education spokesperson Aodhán Ó Ríordáin said that unless the Education Minister "addresses the issues with higher education funding, the sector will remain stagnant".