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Third level needs funding and staff to cope with 'tsunami' of students


(Stock photo)

(Stock photo)

(Stock photo)

Graduates from Irish higher education institutions are highly regarded. Not just by those of us in the system who see the enormous contribution that they make in so many ways, but also by employers. In the National Survey on Employers' Attitudes to Irish Graduates published last week, there was strong satisfaction expressed by business at both the workplace and personal attributes of recent graduates.

This is all the more impressive given that these graduates were educated at a time of unprecedented reduction in the resources available for their courses.

Over the last five years, higher education student numbers have increased by 25,000 while staff numbers have dropped by over 2,000 - a 15pc increase in student numbers along with a 12pc drop in staff numbers. Core expenditure on each student is down by 15pc while there has been a deterioration in the staff/student ratio from 1:15 to 1:19.5 (the OECD average is 1:16).

Given the high level of employer satisfaction, this has to be seen as an incredible productivity gain by the higher education institutions. The system accepted that like all other sectors of society, we had to play our part in assisting national recovery. That was done by reducing expenditure (more than almost all other areas of the public service), but also by committing to continue to provide top-class services - in this case, graduates that will rebuild the economy as well as addressing the upskilling challenge through programmes.

The most radical programme of reform in the recent history of the sector has also been undertaken with a strong focus on ensuring quality outcomes that match national social and economic objectives.

Increasingly there is concern that we may be at a tipping point. Quite simply, it is not reasonable to expect colleges to accept significant additional students without both significant capital and staff investment. The Higher Education Authority, in our 2014 report to the Minister for Education and Skills on the performance of the system, pointed to the risks to quality of outcomes of unfunded growth.

But we have the challenge of a demographic "tsunami" now heading for our third-level colleges. On conservative figures, based on current demand, we estimate that student numbers could grow by almost 30pc over the next 15 years. One needs only to look at the rapidly-increasing levels of CAO applications and the pressures that our schools have been under to see where that demographic bulge will next apply pressure. Regard must also be had to the growth in numbers of mature applicants and the role of third level in upskilling and reskilling people already in the workforce.

In the medium term, the funding group under Peter Cassells' chairmanship offers a good prospect of finding a sustainable solution to the funding conundrum. But we need to take account now of these pressures and prepare for those astonishing numbers or our system will not be able to cope. We owe it to those learners to ensure that they have the necessary resources to gain their qualifications that will allow them to further contribute to society and to compete on the national and international stage.

We also owe it to ourselves to recognise the value of a world-class higher education and research system. Bluntly, there are two prime reasons why international companies locate here and which assist indigenous companies in growing - tax and talent. We may not always be able to offer the most attractive tax rates - others will seek to undercut us. But where we have an unbeatable advantage is our extraordinary pool of bright, adaptable, creative and highly skilled young (and some not so young) people.

Tom Boland is the chief executive of the Higher Education Authority

Irish Independent