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Hundreds of college jobs facing the chop

HUNDREDS of jobs will be axed across higher education under drastic plans to merge courses and close small college departments to save money.

With the public finances continuing to deteriorate, and pressure mounting to slash the €2bn bill taxpayers pay for higher education, the Irish Independent has learned that radical plans are being drawn up to tackle the crisis.

The cuts will hit staff and students in all universities and institutes of technology, where rationalisation of courses is now seen as inevitable.

The measures will include a third-level voluntary redundancy scheme and a significant reduction in the number of courses being offered.

The most likely first casualties are the 21 schools of engineering. Apart from duplication of courses in different colleges in the same cities, quite a number of the courses do not have enough students.

Reducing some of the options and amalgamating courses are on the cards. This would mean some students and staff transferring from one institution to another.

Arts courses will also be looked at in detail, with each subject evaluated on how many students are enrolled.

For instance, the six departments of Italian in our colleges are seen as being too many.

There is also a belief that there is unnecessary duplication in some areas of science, especially in those programmes that are seriously under-subscribed.

The plans, which have yet to go to Government, are being developed by the Higher Education Authority in consultation with all the other main players in third-level education. Both the Irish Universities Association (IUA), Institutes of Technology Ireland (IoTI), as well as Education Minister Batt O'Keeffe, have signed up to the need for rationalisation of courses.

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On Wednesday, the minister's officials will meet the three- member Bord Snip to review where urgent savings can be made -- higher education will be one of the key areas for cuts.

It is unlikely that mergers or closures can be agreed in time for the next academic year in September but they are expected to take place from next year.

Both the IUA and IoTI are set to examine where rationalisation can take place while the Higher Education Authority will drive the process forward with specific proposals.

The Government will then be asked to approve a voluntary redundancy deal for academics in the areas affected, but not across the board.

It will be told that savings can be made through rationalisation of courses, which would pay the cost of the voluntary redundancy scheme.

The numbers involved would be far fewer than the 2,000 to 4,000 voluntary redundancies proposed for the Health Service Executive. However, it was reported yesterday that the proposal for the health sector was running into difficulties because of the €300m price tag.

Sources said engineering will be the first obvious target, given the difficulty some colleges have in filling all the available places.

But some science courses, which cannot fill their places, will also be merged, despite the importance of both engineering and science graduates to the economy.

Similarly, smaller arts departments and courses where student numbers are tiny will be affected.

The six schools of medicine, however, are likely to be spared because they are fully subscribed and earn significant revenue from non-EU students who pay full economic charges.

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