University presidents have warned the Government that their capacity to deliver high-quality education has been “stretched to the limit” due to rising student-staff ratios and underfunding.
Last week eight university presidents and their governing authority chairpeople wrote to the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and other Ministers to highlight what they said was a combined shortfall of more than €600 million across 2023 and 2024.
The letter notes that student-staff ratios have climbed to 23:1 in recent years, in comparison to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development average of 17:1, and seeks the “urgent and collective” action of the Government to build up the capacity of the university sector.
It says this can be done by unlocking a “bulging” €1.5 billion surplus in the National Training Fund. This fund, financed by a levy on employers and collected through the PAYE/PRSI system, is ring-fenced for spending on training, upskilling and lifelong learning.
There is understood to be concern within the Department of Public Expenditure, however, that opening up this surplus could lead to a breach of the Government’s spending rules that envisage core spending rising by no more than 6.1 per cent.
The letter was signed by Prof Kerstin Mey, chairwoman of the Irish Universities Association council and president of University of Limerick, along with the presidents and chairpeople of Trinity College Dublin, UCC, University of Galway, DCU, TU Dublin, Maynooth University and UCD.
It references a Government pledge in May 2022 to address a €307 million per year deficit in core funding for higher education, which was identified in its “Funding the Future” policy document, over the course of several years.
It also quotes Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris at the time that the “question of higher education funding in settled”.
The letter, however, notes that “only” €40 million has been provided to address this [deficit] which has largely been eaten up by the shortage in funding for national pay awards in 2002 and 2023.
As a result, it says, the €307 million funding gap has climbed to a cumulative deficit of €614 million this year, “not to mention previous years’ deficits”.
The letter states that universities have worked closely with Mr Harris and officials to draw up solutions to respond to the growing skills needs of the country.
It says it is understood that these form the basis of a proposal forwarded by Mr Harris and Minister for Enterprise Simon Coveney to the Government to address “urgent and growing skills needs” in areas such as healthcare, climate action, construction, as well as upskilling.
“We can only do so if the resources are made available to invest in our capacity,” the letter states. “The opportunity to make such an investment is available through the combined funding of the system through the Estimates process and by creating a special skills development fund from the €1.5 billion-plus National Training Fund surplus.”
It says delivering high-quality education to students is at the heart of what universities do which, in turn, produces a pipeline of highly skilled talent that underpins our national competitiveness.
“Our capacity for this has now been stretched to the limit ... we can turn this around by making the necessary investment now,” it states. “We urge you to make a decisive move to build our collective capacity to address the nation’s talent needs and to deliver on the commitments you have made under Funding the Future, as well as unlocking the bulging National Training Fund resources.”
Mr Harris said recently that Government investment in the further and higher education sector is rising and has climbed from €3.6 billion two years ago to €3.9 billion this year.
He has said this demonstrates the Government’s commitment to helping the sector “fully realise its potential in contributing to economic and societal priorities” and has pledged to fill the €307 million funding faps “over a number of years through annual budgetary processes”.