Higher education institutions are “creaking” and will struggle to provide additional college places in key areas this year aimed at easing CAO points pressure , universities have warned.
The Government has pledged to provide an additional 2,000 third-level college places in high-demand courses this year in response to record number of applicants and expected grade inflation this year.
However, Jim Miley, director general of the Irish Universities Association, said it will be extremely difficult to source additional places in some areas due to a combination of funding and regulatory obstacles.
“There is a willingness from the sector to take in more students provided they are appropriately resourced,” he said.
“While there is capacity in some areas, in other sectors it is extremely difficult to produce extra numbers due to issues such as clinical placements and capacity constraints.”
He was speaking following the publication of the European Universities Association's Public Funding Observatory Report into 32 higher-education systems over the past decade or more.
It shows Ireland recorded "extreme" cuts in public funding along with high growth in student numbers over that time. Staff numbers in the sector remained broadly the same over this period
In 2008, the report says, there were 19,300 full-time staff in Irish universities with 155,000 students on a budget of euro1.5 billion.
In 2020, the report says the number of staff remained the same with 213,000 students (up 37 per cent) and a budget of €1.4 billion.
The report says Ireland is facing a “difficult challenge” due to funding cuts and growing students numbers,
However, it notes that in 2020 Ireland recorded one of the biggest annual increases in funding, up 17 per cent. The level of public funding, however, remains below 2008 levels.
Irish universities have sought to make up the funding gap by boosting private income over the past decade to the point where about half of their funding is now generated privately. This is the highest proportion in Europe, apart from the UK.
Responding to the findings, Mr Miley said: “It shows we’re climbing up the ladder out of a hole, but we’re still stuck in the hole.”
He said it was vital to continue to increase public funding and to ease restrictions on hiring staff if Irish universities are to compete with the world’s best.
Under an employment control framework introduced in 2011, universities are prevented from hiring full-time staff over and above existing numbers in most cases.
“We really need these completely restrictive limits to be removed. We need to be able to recruit people on a permanent basis. It’s not sustainable, in the context of the talent challenge, to be hiring on short-term contracts,” Mr Miley said.
Minister for Further Education Simon Harris has said funding for higher education has increased in 2020 and 2021, and he is determined to settle on a new funding model for the sector.
“Minister Harris has been clear he intends to address this issue during his tenure. Minister Harris expects the report of the Commission in Q2 and will bring proposals to Government shortly after,” a spokeswoman for Mr Harris said,
“There has been very significant increases in funding in recent years but there will be a need to do more. Alongside such a funding discussion, a reform discussion will also be required to make sure our third-level education system is accessible, inclusive and flexible in meeting the needs of our citizens.”