PRESSURE continues to mount for higher college fees, after the publication of a report yesterday outlining the funding crisis at third-level.
However, any final decision on whether students will have to pay more to go to college may be some time off, as further research is now being carried out.
Higher student contributions, or limiting the number going to college are the only ways to avoid reducing the quality of the third-level system, according to the report.
The report examines ways of sustaining a quality higher education in the face of growing student numbers and deteriorating state finances.
It warns of the "threat to quality" from rising enrolments at a time when staffing is being cut and the grants to colleges to meet running costs are being reduced.
Among the report's findings are that funding per student in Ireland is between 19pc and 29pc lower than funding for students in England.
The sustainability study was carried out for the Higher Education Authority (HEA), and is now being considered by Education Minister Ruairi Quinn.
It is putting Mr Quinn in a particularly awkward position because of his pre-election pledge not to raise student fees.
He has already rowed back on that, with the recent Budget rise in the student contribution charge from €2,000 to €2,250.
However, in an indication of the pressure he is under on this issue, Mr Quinn held back on a plan to use the Budget to set out a series of increases for three further years.
HEA chairman John Hennessy has told Mr Quinn that, following this report, substantial additional work now needs to be done before comprehensive proposals on the future funding of higher education can be developed.
The HEA wants to do more research on the predicted rise in student numbers, whether private colleges can play a bigger role, and the use of technology, such as online lectures.
One option on raising the student contribution would be the introduction of a graduate tax, with students paying the State back for their degree once they achieved a certain income.
But Mr Quinn is against such an idea because it would do nothing to resolve the immediate funding crisis, and could become an incentive to graduates to emigrate.
The situation facing third-level colleges is even worse than it was when the sustainability study was carried out.
The Budget announced a four-year programme of cuts to state grants for the day-to-day-running of colleges.
Irish Universities Association (IUA) chief executive Ned Costello said it was a "wake up call" that demanded a re-appraisal of plans to cut spending further over the next three budgets.
"It is time for a radical re-appraisal of how we fund our universities if we are to avoid long-term damage to education and our economy".