Can our colleges cope with the coming crisis?
John Walshe says hard decisions will have to wait until after the election
Irish colleges face a tsunami of applications over the next few years as a surge in pupil numbers works its way through our schools. A decade ago there were around 63,500 applicants to the CAO system, mostly Leaving Cert students, but now the figure is heading up towards 80,000 and rising fast.
There are real doubts about the ability of higher education institutions to cope with the extra demand caused by the high birth rates in Ireland over the last 15 years. But there is no doubting the Government's reluctance and difficulties in facing up to the coming crisis.
The reason is simple. No government is going to tell parents in the run up to the general election that there won't be enough places for their sons and daughters in college unless, that is, they pay more taxes to fund the necessary expansion or else their children pay more through fees or some kind of graduate tax.
So until the next government takes a decision, the system will creak along, and students entering college in September will come up against the effects of the cuts of the past decade. These are evident in larger classes, fewer tutors and other resources, reduced services, out of date equipment, poor maintenance of buildings, etc.
All sectors of education experienced cuts during the recession but the biggest were in higher education, the very sector the country is relying on to help revive and drive the economy with skilled graduates. The worst time to make cuts in education is when enrolments are rising. And that's what happened in this country in recent years as governments sought to pull the economy back from a financial cliff. However, there has been a marked difference in the impact of cuts across the sectors in terms of staffing levels:
* At primary level the number of teachers increased by 3pc
* At second level there was a 2pc cut
* But at third level the cut in teaching numbers was 17pc.
In other words, higher education had by far and away the biggest percentage increase in enrolments - 16pc - and the biggest percentage decrease in staff numbers - 17pc. I should declare an interest here as I was adviser to Minister Ruairí Quinn when he was education minister during the worst phase of the financial emergency and currently advise a third-level institution.
So what of the future? Secondary school enrolments are projected to grow from 338,000 last year to 405,000 in just 10 years' time. This massive increase in student numbers will inevitably lead to a critical shortage of higher education places unless crucial decisions are taken early by the next government.
An expert group, chaired by former ICTU boss Peter Cassells, is looking at how the system can be sustained. It will review a suite of possibilities including fees, loans, a graduate tax, and an SSAI savings scheme of some kind, etc.
The Cassells group has produced an initial report pointing to the scale of the challenge. It's clear that we need to increase the number of places by nearly 30pc just to keep the present percentage of people - the participation rate - in college.
If we don't, then there will be more applicants for the same number of places with the result that the entry points will rocket.
Some of this demand could be met by the broader apprenticeship scheme recently launched by Minister Jan O'Sullivan and by revamping the further education sector but there will still be an insatiable appetite for higher education.
The Cassells group is officially due to report before the end of the year on how to satiate and fund that demand but don't hold your breath on the timing of the report or on any hard decision being taken before the forthcoming general election.
John Walshe is an education consultant and former adviser to Minister Ruairí Quinn