Student experience at university under ‘significant strain’, institutes say

Sharp funding increase needed amid rise in student numbers, says Irish Universities Association

Universities say there is increasing evidence that the student experience is under significant strain and risks being further diminished unless there is a sharp increase in funding in next month’s budget.

Latest data show that student-staff ratios in Irish higher education are the highest in the European Union and colleges say they are struggling to meet the needs of the rising student population.

While the Government committed earlier this year to boost core funding for higher education by €307 million over three years, the Irish Universities Association (IUA) said next month’s budget will provide the first chance to deliver on this pledge.

Funding package

In a submission to the Department of Further and Higher Education, the association says a front-loaded core funding package of about €170 million is needed over the coming year in order to make “meaningful progress” in improving student-staff ratios, tackling dropout rates and improving student services.


“There is increasing evidence that the student experience, and services offered to students, is under significant strain,” said Jim Miley, head of the IUA.

“It is essential that the significant funding requirement is front-loaded and delivered in full over the next three budgets ... If we don’t get the level of funding we need, there will be further strain which risks diminishing the student experience... Ultimately, this is funding for students.”

The IUA says this €170 millon package would support the employment of about 730 additional academics, along with hundreds of support staff, and would reduce the student-staff ratio of almost 20:1 to 19:1. It would also, it says, reduce the sector’s reliance on short-term contracts. The average EU staff-student ratio in higher education average is 14:1, while the OECD equivalent is about 16:1.

Mr Miley said the higher education sector has enrolled about 30 per cent more students over the past decade and expects a further 20 per cent increase over the coming years. However, funding has not climbed upwards at anywhere near the same pace. “The problems [of underfunding] get bigger every year, so this is about getting in advance of the problem,” he said.

Inflation pressures

The IUA said the Government has pledged that additional core funding over the coming years will be separate from extra funds needed for demographic growth in the student population and “standstill” costs arising from pay awards and inflation pressures.

As a result, it maintains that any move to reduce the €3,000 student contribution charge must be counterbalanced by equivalent funding that universities would lose as a result. For example, a €500 cut in student contribution would cost universities an estimated €45 million in lost revenue.

In addition, the IUA is seeking an additional €42 million to cover an expected growth in student numbers and a €360 million capital package to provide additional capacity on campus, improve digital infrastructure and reduce the carbon footprint of universities.

Separately, a “standstill” fund of €163 million is needed, the IUA says, to cover national pay awards, increments and non-pay inflation-related costs. This sum does not include the potential costs of a successor to the current public sector pay deal.

Last May the Government published its “funding the future” policy which, it said, “settles” the question on funding higher education.

It ruled out student loans as part of a future funding model and committed to additional exchequer investment and employer contributions. In addition, it said student contributions will be “gradually reduced”.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent