DRAMATIC cuts in staffing in third-level college have now reached the equivalent of stripping the country's biggest university of its entire workforce.
Staff numbers across universities and institutes of technology are down by 2,246, or 12pc, since 2008 as a result of recruitment restrictions.
The headcount reductions – based on December 2013 levels and seen by the Irish Independent – amount to more than the entire staff of University College Dublin, which currently stands at 2,079.
The staffing squeeze comes in the face of soaring demand for a college place, with a 15pc rise in enrolments over the same period, which translates as a 27pc reduction in the staff-student ratio in six years.
Staff cuts are only one measure of the significant drop in state support for third-level, with colleges also taking a hit on direct state funding for day-to-day running costs and building projects. Overall, state spend per student is down from €8,897 in 2007/08 to €5,212 this year.
Colleges increasingly rely on other income, such as research funding, endowments and international students and, in many cases, state funding now accounts for less than half their revenue.
There is growing concern that quality will suffer and that the reputation of Irish higher education will be damaged. Cuts are blamed for a drop in the rankings of leading Irish colleges in international university league tables in recent years.
The December 2013 figures have thrown a new spotlight on the extent of the cuts, sparking a call from the head of the Higher Education Authority (HEA), the government agency for overseeing third-level, for new thinking.
HEA chief executive Tom Boland said: "Whatever fat was in the system is used and it's time for a new strategy."
He said that demand for higher education was continuing to grow and "ensuring we maintain a world-class system is in Ireland's best long-term interests".
Mr Boland said the universities, institutes and education colleges had made significant efforts to ensure that the frontline impact on students was minimised and that quality was protected.
Inevitably, at the core of any debate about funding at third-level is the question of who pays and raises the possibility of higher student fees, if the Government can't or won't increase its contribution.
It is an open secret that a HEA report on the sustainability of third-level – in other words, how it can afford to meet growing demand – points to a system of student loans as an option, with repayments made after a graduate hits a certain income threshold.
However, Education Minister Ruairi Quinn, embarrassed about going back on a pre-election pledge not to raise the student charge, has shown no appetite to publish the report and has sought further work on it.
Under Mr Quinn's regime, the student charge has grown by €250 a year to a maximum of €3,000 in 2015.
A recent report by the Nevin Economic Research Institute (NERI) recommended more public funding for third-level.
Irish Universities Association (IUA) chief executive Ned Costello warned that higher education could not survive on a "starvation diet".