Universities’ plans to double overseas students carries risks

Quinn highlights need for industry – as ‘the beneficiary’ of third level education – to play funding role

Minister Ruairí Quinn is  presented with a copy of a new book telling the story of the Grangegorman development. Also pictured are James Mary O’Connor, lead designer of the Grangegorman Campus and DIT president Prof Brian Norton.

Minister Ruairí Quinn is presented with a copy of a new book telling the story of the Grangegorman development. Also pictured are James Mary O’Connor, lead designer of the Grangegorman Campus and DIT president Prof Brian Norton.


You’d hardly blame Ruairí Quinn for kicking to touch on college fees after the flak he has taken, since taking office, over increasing the student registration charge.

The setting up of a working group is a classic political stalling method, and Mr Quinn has little room for manoeuvre as the charge hits €3,000 next year in breach of a pre-election promise to keep it unchanged.

Further delaying a decision on funding higher education, however, is not in the sector’s – or the country’s – interest. The staff-student ratio at third-level institutions has shot up from 1:15 in 2007 to a projected 1:20 in 2016, while expenditure per student is projected to fall from €11,783 to €8,997.

Irish universities and other third-level colleges are now competing in a global market, and they need to continue investing in the quality of their teaching and research to attract the best students.

The Higher Education Authority’s first system performance report, published yesterday, highlights plans by several institutions to double the number of non-EU students on campus. But, without a sustainable funding model, chasing after this lucrative “full fees” market may only deepen the crisis.

Universities in Australia made aggressive attempts to boost student intake from China only to see that market disappear, leaving an even greater hole in the budget.

Public and private funding

The key issue is how to balance the contribution from public and private sources, including – as Mr Quinn pointed out – private industry which was “very much the beneficiary” of third-level education.

The contribution of the State through grants and free fees has shrunk from 76 per cent of higher education income in 2007 to a projected 51 per cent in 2016. Student contributions are set to increase more than fourfold in the same period.

The universities are upping their call for an increased State contribution, with a public campaign planned for the autumn. In the short term, they are seeking some relaxation of the employment control framework, which stops them filling much-needed posts.

The Minister said “as the economy improves, hopefully flexibility will be found to improve those pupil-teacher ratios”, but indicated the priority would be on primary and post-primary recruitment.

Similarly, he held out little hope of relief for postgraduate students facing rapidly rising fees. While the working group would look at this, he believed “we have to prioritise undergraduate education . . . There are different kinds of postgraduate work and some of them are more pertinent to the requirements of the economy than others”.

The report has been published in conjunction with long-awaited “compacts” between the HEA and each higher education institution setting out agreed targets. Up to 10 per cent of funding will be withheld if these are not met but Mr Quinn said there was “no suggestion whatsoever of any interference” in academic life.


Fergal Costello, the HEA’s head of performance management, concurred, saying “there is no sense that we are pre-empting or directing institutions to do x, y or z”. Rather, he said, there was a balance to be struck between autonomy and accountability.

Nonetheless, the strains between academics and administrators are set to intensify as the funding crisis deepens.

Ireland has much to be proud of in higher education, with the best tertiary attainment rate in the Europe. To avoid going backwards, however, there must be a major buy-in from both politicians and the public.

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