Quality of Irish graduates at risk due to funding shortages

Rising student numbers and falling investment linked to larger classes and fewer supports

While third-level institutions have been successful securing EU research funds, there are concerns over a decline in Irish investment in this sector. Photograph: Chris Radburn/PA Wire

While third-level institutions have been successful securing EU research funds, there are concerns over a decline in Irish investment in this sector. Photograph: Chris Radburn/PA Wire

 

The quality of graduates from Irish third-level institutions is at risk following a sharp fall in public funding and rising students numbers over recent years, according to the Higher Education Authority.

The authority’s annual performance report shows that universities and institutes of technology have expanded to accommodate an additional 15,000 students in the space of just three years.

However, staff-student ratios have deteriorated significantly, rising from about 1:16 to 1:20, significantly above the average for developed countries.

“It is reasonable to conclude that the departure of the staff-student ratio from stable international norms will impact the quality of the student experiences,” the report states.

These findings echo the conclusions of the recent Cassells report into the future funding of higher education. It found concerns over growing class sizes, reductions in smaller tutorial groups, less one-on-one contact and time to accommodate diverse learning styles.

“This is impacting on teachers’ abilities to identify and support at-risk students,” the Cassells report found.

The performance report also shows there are “major sustainability problems” in higher education, with 11 of the 26 higher-level institutions in deficit.

The situation is most challenging for institutes of technology, where there are concerns over the viability of up to six colleges due to dwindling cash reserves or deficits.

Demographic increases

Minister for Education Richard Bruton said the Government was making the first significant investment in higher education next year with an additional €36.5 million, or €160 million over the next three years.

“This will allow us for the first time to keep pace with demographic increases and also introduce targeted initiatives in priority areas, in particular disadvantage, skills, research and flexible learning, with thousands of students benefiting under each heading.”

The performance report also highlights an issue over high student drop-out rates for courses in areas such as computer science and engineering. The proportion of students failing to complete their first year in computer science is as high as 26 per cent across institutes of technology and 15 per cent in universities.

Overall, Ireland is performing strongly in science, technology, engineering and maths (Stem) subjects, with one of the highest proportions of students studying science, maths and computing in the EU.

Construction

There has been increase of almost 60 per cent in the volume of graduates in ICT, science, maths and construction from 2009 to 2014.

There have been modest increases in the share of students from disadvantaged backgrounds and of students with a disability attending third level, up from 4 per cent and 2 per cent respectively.

While third-level institutions have been successful securing EU research funds, there are concerns over a decline in Irish investment in this sector.

Since 2008, investment in research and development has fallen 15 per cent, while the number of research students has dropped 30 per cent. This is due to factors such as reduced core funding, student finances and fewer staff being available for research supervision, the report notes.