Third-level places may be capped due to funding crisis

Mon, Nov 30, 2009, 00:00

A CAP on the number of students entering third level may be necessary as colleges struggle with a deepening funding crisis, according to the chief executive of the Higher Education Authority, Tom Boland.

His suggestion, made in an article in today’s Irish Times, will raise concerns about the return of the “points race”. Inevitably, any cap would trigger a dramatic increase in CAO points for many popular courses at third level.

Mr Boland’s comments comes after recent figures from the authority showed record levels of admissions to higher education.

There are over 110,000 full-time undergraduate students in Ireland, more than the total number engaged in farming and related activities.

Mr Boland writes that the boom in numbers – when higher education has been cut back dramatically – is placing great strains on the system. He warns how “we cannot increase the student numbers year on year’’ without addressing the funding crisis.

“If we cannot agree where sufficient resources can be found, an option available is to follow the example of England, where they effectively cap the number of students . . . The implications of such a decision would be that the competition for places would intensify but those who do get a place in college would have a quality education guaranteed. It means that more students, unable to gain a place in an Irish college, will seek their education abroad. And, for some, capping numbers means capping their ambitions, hopes and life chances.’’

The introduction of a cap would see CAO points increase after a decade in which they have been on a downward spiral.

In recent years, there has been acknowledgement that the points race has effectively ended for all but a minority of blue-chip courses in medicine and some related areas. Mr Boland’s article also reflects widespread dismay among university presidents about the recent Government decision to abandon plans for a new student loan scheme.

He says the debate on fees never addressed the “real issue – how do we resource higher education?’’

He also suggests that those opposed to student contributions failed to articulate an alternative funding system for third level.

The funding crisis could he warns, undermine quality at third level and deliver only “second-rate degrees which won’t cut it in the global economy’’.

The financial pressure on the higher education sector has tightened in the past year, with the Government imposing a 5 per cent cut in core funding.

Most of the seven universities are in debt. Between them, UCC and UCD have an accumulated debt of about €40 million.

Mr Boland praises the success of the higher education sector in delivering more with less funding.

However, he cautions: “We cannot and will not address the resource and related quality needs of higher education solely by productivity gains. As matters stand, we are at risk of sleepwalking our way . . . to a future crisis of confidence in the quality of our higher education and skills system which could prove much harder to solve and have a longer lasting impact.’’

Under pressure from the Greens, Fianna Fáil Ministers recently scrapped plans for students loans to pay fees, prepared for Cabinet by Minister for Education Batt O’Keeffe.

Last week , the Provost of TCD, Dr John Hegarty, said the Government would have to revisit the issue of student contributions.

A forthcoming report from the National Strategy Group on Higher Education – appointed by Mr O’Keeffe – is expected to address the funding crisis.