Analysis: Funding cuts putting third-level sector under pressure

New targets agreed with the Higher Education Authority include greater student diversity

The Higher Education Authority has concluded a series of performance agreements with each of the State’s universities, institutes of technology and other third-level colleges.

Under these “compacts”, each college is required to set out its plans for the future, and how it intends to differentiate itself from other higher education institutions.

For the first time, institutions have set specific goals in areas such as access for disadvantaged groups, drop-out rates, the quality of teaching and learning, and research and internationalisation.

Up to 10 per cent of the authority’s funding can be withheld if these targets are not met.


After seven years of spending cuts, rising student numbers and falling numbers of academic staff, many in the sector say it is under pressure as never before.

State funding for universities has been cut by about half since the economic crisis. A drop in the number of academics is affecting their ability to provide high-quality education and qualifications

At least five colleges are now running deficits and are in danger of failing to reach agreed targets on financial sustainability. They include Dundalk IT, Waterford IT, Letterkenny IT and Galway-Mayo IT – as well as the National College of Art and Design (NCAD) in Dublin.

However, the majority are making ends meet. The most successful increased income from private sources – such as research and international student fees – to plug gaps in State funding.

Larger universities including University College Dublin (UCD), Trinity and University College Cork (UCC) now generate close to 60 per cent of their income from non-exchequer sources.

It is too early to determine whether colleges will meet their performance “compacts” that run until 2016.

However, the Higher Education Authority's latest Higher Education System Performance publication for 2012-2013 academic year – completed in recent weeks – provides a new insight into how many of them are faring (see graphic).

University College Dublin

When ranked by number of full-time students, UCD is the biggest third-level institution in the country, with almost 24,000 enrolments at undergraduate and postgraduate level.

It is also the biggest in terms of income, receiving €338 million in the 2012-2013 academic year in fees and grants, as well as generating more than any other college by way of private research funds.

The average expenditure per student is one of the highest for any college at €10,596.

In terms of staff qualifications, it has one of the most impressive records, with 3.2 PhD graduates per 10 academic staff, above the university average of 2.8.

The drop-out rate for degree courses, at 10 per cent, is about average for a university, and just below the 11 per cent average for all higher education institutions.

In terms of diversity, just 16 per cent are from disadvantaged students – below the university average of 20 per cent.

In its performance agreement for 2014-2016 , UCD sets out ambitious targets on expanding its reach beyond Irish shores.

It says that by 2016 it will have doubled its intake of non-Irish students to about 6,000 in the space of five years.

On access, it seeks to increase the number of students from under-represented groups, but to a lesser extent than others.

University College Cork

With almost 20,000 full-time students, UCC is one of the biggest third-level institutions in the Republic.

Its income totalled some €274 million in the 2012-2013 academic year, with almost 60 per cent coming from non-exchequer sources.

This private funding – the largest proportion for any third-level college with published figures – includes research grants, international student fees, rental income and other sources.

In fact,it recorded the highest contract research income per academic staff member – €104,000 – of any college in the country.

International students account for 10 per cent of its overall enrolment, while 21 per cent are from disadvantaged backgrounds.

In its performance agreement for 2014-2016 , UCC commits itself to being “a world-class university connecting our region to the globe”, and sets a target of sustaining its position in the top 2 per cent of global universities in world league tables.

Dublin Institute of Technology

The largest institute of technology – which has hopes of becoming a technological university – had almost 17,000 full-time students in the 2012-2013 academic year.

Like other institutes of technology, it is heavily reliant on State funding. State grants and student fees accounted for almost 60 per cent of its €150 million income.

Among the ITs, its academic staff are the most qualified. Drop-out rates in first year for degree courses are 16 per cent. This is higher than the average for all third-level institutions (11 per cent), though just below the average for all ITs (17 per cent).

The college is in the process of relocating to its new campus at Grangegorman and plans to have half of its students based there by 2017.

Trinity College Dublin

Dublin’s oldest and most prestigious university has the highest proportion of highly qualified staff members, with 4.3 PhD graduates per 10 academic staff.

It has a high proportion of international students (15 per cent), but has a relatively low proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds (14 per cent).

Expenditure per student is among the highest in the State (€12,089), while drop-out rates are relatively low at 9 per cent.

In its performance agreement for 2014-2016 , TCD says its vision is to be “a university of global consequence”, and it puts heavy emphasis on research and expanding its global reach.

On college partnerships it is committed to an “innovation alliance programme” with UCD, and with two regional clusters on teacher training and creative arts.

However, it stresses “the governance of the regional clusters should be at a high level and not unduly intrude on legitimate university autonomy”.

It also says it will boost options for Irish students to study abroad, as well as developing new online programmes and creating of “a limited number of MOOCs”, or free, open-access courses.

NUI Galway

NUI Galway has one of the highest proportions of international students (17 per cent) of any college in the Republic.

Based on the volume of new entrants, its top discipline is humanities and arts, though most of its doctorates are in the areas of health and welfare.

About 11 per cent of students drop out or fail to progress from first to second year, about average for most higher education institutions.

In the 2012-13 academic year, it had an income of €221 million, the majority of which came from non-exchequer sources such as research grants and contracts.

It has a relatively diverse student population, with 21 per cent of new entrants from disadvantaged backgrounds. A total of 10 per cent had a disability, while 8 per cent were mature students.

In its performance agreement for 2014-2016 , NUI Galway says it has “an overarching objective to be firmly embedded within the top rank of research universities in our selected areas of expertise”.

University of Limerick

UL has achieved a better gender balance than most, an increasingly important performance indicator for colleges.

While 47 per cent of its academic staff were female in 2012-2013, the proportion of senior academics who were female was 34 per cent, one of the highest figures in the country.

Six per cent of its 17,000 full-time students are international, while 21 per cent are from disadvantaged backgrounds.

In its performance agreement for 2014-2016 , UL says its mission is to be “a distinctive, pioneering and connected university”.

It aims to significantly increase the number of citations achieved by UL publications by next year, as well boosting the number of books published by UL staff with “prestigious publishers” by 20 per cent.

In addition, it plans to double the intake of non-EU students, and increase the number of students taking a semester abroad by 30 per cent.

Dublin City University

DCU has 12,000 full-time students in the 2012-2013 academic year and spent an average of €8,666 on each student.

Course in social sciences as well as business and law were among the most popular with new entrants.

A total of 22 per cent of students were from disadvantaged backgrounds, while 5 per cent had a disability and 9 per cent were mature students.

In its performance agreement for 2014-2016 , it aims to develop “creative, analytical, enterprising and socially responsible citizens”.

It also plans to increase the number of non-EU students on campus and boost the number of such students on online programmes.

NUI Maynooth

NUI Maynooth’s student population is among the most diverse in the country. Some 26 per cent of its 10,000 students were from disadvantaged backgrounds, 16 per cent were mature entrants and 8 per cent had a disability.

The proportion of international students was relatively low at 5 per cent, though it plans to increase this significantly.

In its performance agreement for 2014-2016, it seeks to significantly increase the number of work placements for students.

It also sets a goal of increasing research income.

On access, Maynooth plans to “retain at least the current proportion of students from designated groups, despite an increasingly difficult economic context”.