Enrolment boom as record numbers head off to college
THE number of students going to college will hit a new high this year.
Record enrolments of about 46,500 freshers are filling universities and other third-level institutions to capacity.
While the registration process won't be complete for a number of weeks, new student numbers are now certain to top last year's record of 45,500, up from 40,000 a few years ago.
Colleges are now catering for almost 200,000 undergraduate and postgraduate students -- up from 170,000 in the 2004/05 academic year.
The enrolment boom has put new pressure on colleges, coming at a time when the State is reducing financial support for the third-level sector.
In the past two years, there has been a 15pc cut in government funding for third level, including a 6pc drop in staff numbers.
With little or no empty desks in third level, the Government and colleges now face an immediate challenge of how to cater for an ongoing growth in student numbers.
Given the state of the public finances, the question of colleges raising more of their own funds, through some form of student contribution, will be back on the agenda soon.
While the Government has pledged not to re-introduce student fees in its lifetime, a report on the future of third-level education has recommended the "urgent" introduction of a student loan scheme to address the financial crisis facing higher education.
The report, by economist Dr Colin Hunt, recommends that students receive a loan to cover the cost of fees, to be repaid once they reach a certain income threshold after graduating.
The enrolments surge has been fuelled by the growing need for higher qualifications to get a job in today's economy.
Poor job prospects in the recession have also seen more graduates stay in college to pursue masters degrees or doctorates and many of the newly unemployed are also seeking to improve their skills.
According to new figures from the Higher Education Authority, there was a total of 188,166 full and part-time students in publicly funded institutions in the 2009-10 year. There were about another 10,000 in the private sector.
There has been extraordinary growth in college participation in Ireland since 1980, when two in every 10 from the 18- to 19-year-old group went to third level. That compares with about seven in 10 today.
The college offers season continues until October 20, after which the official figure for enrolments for 2010-11 will be available.
Meanwhile, the Central Applications Office (CAO), the centralised agency for processing college applications, is continuing to work with external consultants on the computer hacker 'denial of service' attacks that paralysed its system intermittently when first-round offers were issued in August.
There have been no further attacks, however, and operations are no longer being affected. The consultants' report will be presented to the CAO in November.
The CAO has also announced that it is reducing all application fees for 2011 by more than 10pc.
Those applying by the February 1 deadline will pay €40 and those who make an early application online -- by 5.15pm on January 20, 2011 -- will pay the discounted rate of €30.
The fee reduction applies to both online and postal applications.
CAO operations manager Joseph O'Grady said the cost saving had been brought about by the increased efficiencies due to its online application and acceptance facilities, even with the rise in application numbers. This year, the CAO processed 77,628 applications.
There have been more than 45,529 acceptances so far and more than 95pc of these were recorded online.