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Students' welfare is at risk as funding cuts of €550m bite

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Concerns: The Higher Education Authority monitors the college sector. Stock Image

Concerns: The Higher Education Authority monitors the college sector. Stock Image

Concerns: The Higher Education Authority monitors the college sector. Stock Image

Student welfare services in third-level colleges are "overburdened" as a result of Government cuts to funding and day-to-day running costs, now €550m less than in 2007.

The strain is among concerns raised at recent meetings of the Higher Education Authority (HEA) about how long the system has to wait before the funding issue will be sorted.

There is also worry at HEA board level about the impact of the ongoing austerity era cuts on student/academic staff ratios - up from 16:1 to 20:1 between 2007 and 2017 - in the sector.

This has been well-documented in recent years and is blamed for the slide by leading universities down the international rankings.

In 2016, the Cassells Report said higher education would need an extra €600m by 2021 - up to €1bn by 2030 - mainly to deal with projected growth in the third-level enrolments as the population bulge works through the education system.

A recent report by the Parliamentary Budget Office found that while undergraduate student numbers are up 50pc since 2008, funding is 6pc below the 2008 level. The report put €550m on the State funding shortfall since 2008.

The funding options set out by Cassells involved either a significant increase in Exchequer funding or an unpopular increase in student fees linked to a loan system.

But it was long-fingered by the Government and referred to the EU for further analysis, the report on which is awaited.

The Government has introduced a number of targeted initiatives to support the sector, but there has been no reversal of the cut to the core grant, used to meet day-to-day costs.

While the outcome of the EU review is expected this year, concern has been raised by the HEA that it is only assessing funding options, and "would not address the question as to the adequacy of funding".

Amid the uncertainty about financial underpinning for the sector into the future, some strong feelings have been expressed at recent HEA board meetings.

The need to convince the political system that additional funding would enhance the output of higher education was raised.

On the plus side, while there is concern about the deterioration in the staff/student ratio, a recent meeting heard there was "some evidence that these reductions had not yet impacted deleteriously on outcomes".

And while it was acknowledged that many higher education institutions had secured additional research revenue, it was argued this did not add to the resources available for teaching, learning and student services.

A meeting heard that student welfare services were "overburdened".

The Exchequer cuts have forced universities to become more dependent on funding from other sources, such as international students.

But HEA members have warned this additional income could not be guaranteed, pointing to the drop in the international rankings of universities and a perceived deterioration in the student experience which may see students go elsewhere.

Inadequate student accommodation for non-EU students was also seen as a weakness in the Irish offering.

The HEA has responsibility for the oversight of the higher education sector, and its board includes representatives of academia, employers, business and students.

It is accountable to the education minister.

Irish Independent