Saturday 17 August 2019

Students to suffer if risks to quality of third-level education not addressed

Minister Richard Bruton is working on a funding system. Photo: Tom Burke
Minister Richard Bruton is working on a funding system. Photo: Tom Burke
Katherine Donnelly

Katherine Donnelly

Growing risks to the quality of third-level education in Ireland due to a lack of funding are highlighted in a new report from the Higher Education Authority (HEA).

It warns the "system is approaching a point where the available resources will not be able to assure adequate quality of provision".

The renewed spotlight on the impact of funding shortfalls comes in the latest HEA System Performance report, which reviews the state of the sector in 2014 and 2015.

Launching the report today, Education Minister Richard Bruton acknowledged that State investment in the sector fell by 33pc, or €463m, over a nine-year period, at time when student numbers were rising.

The last Budget committed €36.6m to higher education, the first such investment since the financial crisis struck and Mr Bruton said he was working on putting in place a sustainable funding system. The Oireachtas Education Committee is deliberating on recommendations made in the Cassells Report for a new funding system.

Chair of the report, Peter Cassells, laid out three funding options when he delivered his report to Government earlier this year - all of which involve greater State investment with options for student loans and employer contributions.

Mr Bruton said it was an area where broad political consensus was needed on a future direction, and he would be working to build that consensus.

The HEA report points to the growth in student numbers, from 196,000 in 2011/12 to about 210,000 in 2014/15, a figure that will continue to rise.

Among the positives are progress in areas such as increasing the proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds studying for a degree.

But it notes the precarious state of finances of many colleges, and of others also struggling to deliver quality against a background of worsening staff-student ratios and outdated buildings and equipment.

According to the report, a significant number of institutions are rapidly depleting their historic surpluses just to maintain quality.

It emerged recently that 10 of 14 institutes of technology are in financial difficulty, while the report also refers to the "vulnerable" position of a specialist third-level college.

Other institutions were severely restricted in their ability to grow because of unsustainable operational losses or lack of physical space, it said.

The report stated that HEA has sought to reduce the risks to vulnerable colleges through close financial supervision, and by seeking better strategic management and effective utilisation of resources.

But it added that some risks were outside the control of the HEA or the institutions, such as those relating to the overall funding of the system.

Irish Independent

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