Universities have been given the green light to hire more than 1,500 new permanent staff this year as part of a long-awaited move aimed at improving student-staff ratios.
The move comes as the Government examines easing recruitment restrictions which have been imposed on the sector since 2010 as an austerity-era spending measure.
A total of 1,562 posts will be shared across the third level sector with Atlantic Technological University set to get the single biggest increase (192), followed by UCD (156), TU Dublin (150), University of Limerick (140), UCC (124) and Trinity College Dublin (119).
Officials are discussing replacing this employment control framework with a new system which “better aligns with current realities in the sector”.
Critics say hiring restrictions at a time of rising student numbers have led to overcrowded lectures, reduced access to laboratories and limited access to libraries and support for vulnerable learners.
Student-staff ratios are about 23:1 in Ireland, according to latest figures, compared to a European norm of 15:1.
Lecturers also say employment controls have resulted in more precarious and short-term contracts for younger staff, in particular.
Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris told The Irish Times the move will help reduce staff-student ratios and boost research capacity in universities.
“There have been employment controls in higher education for a number of years,” he said. “As a result of Budget 2023, we have been able to significantly increase the number of posts available in higher education from September.
“This will provide significant flexibility to higher education institutions to recruit additional staff in advance of the academic year and crucially, to begin to reduce the student/lecturer ratio.”
In advance of Budget 2024, he said it represented “tangible progress” following an increase in core funding given to higher education.
In parallel, he said, his department is working with the Department of Public Expenditure, the Higher Education Authority and education stakeholders on a new model to replace the employment control framework.
While this reform is progressing, he said this year’s ceiling uplift for core-funded posts agreed for 2023 will help build capacity in areas such as research in the new technological universities.
The Irish Universities Association said it welcomed moves to improve staff-student ratios and recruit more full-time staff.
However, Jim Miley, the association’s director general, said student numbers have grown by more than one-third since the employment control framework was introduced, while permanent staff levels have grown by just 10 per cent due to the restrictions.
“As a result, the student-staff ratios in our universities have got worse. This must be urgently addressed by the removal of the employment control framework limits, combined with delivery of the Government’s pledge to increase core funding by €307 million per year.”
The Teachers’ Union of Ireland (TUI), which represents more than 4,000 staff in higher education institutions, also welcomed moves to hire more staff in the sector.
However, the TUI’s Martin Marjoram, said the ratio of students to teaching staff at third level remains “vastly and unacceptably” higher than European averages.
“This is a clear and shameful indictment of the political refusal to address the sector’s funding crisis, which has resulted in larger class sizes and less access to laboratories, equipment, materials, libraries and tutorials,” he said.
He said there were also serious ongoing issues around the precarious employment status of researchers and lecturers in the sector.
Mr Marjoram said greater funding clarity will not be sufficient to address these problems and called for the “outdated impositions” of the employment control framework to be removed.
He said the technological university and institute of technology sector has a “proud record” of providing educational opportunities to groups underrepresented in third level education.