The Government is to seek additional cash from employers in return for thousands of new college places in areas linked to skills’ shortages. The move is likely to spark concerns in some quarters over fears that big business will have too much influence over the future of higher education. However, well-placed sources say any input from employers is likely to be limited to the broad skills they require across key sectors.
Minister for Education Richard Bruton is due to announce details of a consultation process with industry over a new "employer-exchequer investment mechanism" to help plug the funding gap.
A greater role for industry in supporting the expansion of third-level education is envisaged in the Cassells report into the future funding of higher education.
At present, employers pay about €360 million a year into a National Training Fund through a payroll levy. However, just a fraction of this goes to higher education. Employers’ lobby group Ibec has previously signalled that it would support a more “structured” approach to supporting programmes in areas of skills demand and that more effective use of the training fund should be explored.
Mr Bruton has said that a future model for additional funding for colleges could be a "competitive tendering model", in which colleges would compete against each other for funds to provide courses to meet skills' shortages. He told The Irish Times last year that industry needed to invest much more in the education system. "[Irish industry] doesn't have a tradition of investing in training and apprenticeships that other countries have," he said. "We really have to enforce that bridge from both sides: getting education to reach out more in terms of curriculum shaping, trying to create placement opportunities; and enterprise has to meet it half-way."
University presidents, meanwhile, say third-level is in dire need of additional funding after almost a decade of falling investment and rising student numbers.
In response to funding cuts, most of the large universities have moved to generate most of their income through private sources such as industry link-ups and collaborative research.
Individual companies already contribute directly to higher education institutions through a broad range of up-skilling, research and sponsorship initiatives.
Intel, for example, has teamed up with University College Dublin and Dublin City University in research and sponsoring masters students in recent years.
While this year’s budget includes the first significant funding increase in higher education in a decade, universities say the additional €36.5 million falls well short of the €100 million needed to boost the standing of the sector.
Mr Bruton says a three-year funding package – worth a total of €160 million in additional funds – will give greater certainty to colleges over the coming years.
This comes as an Oireachtas education committee considers the Cassells report on the future funding of third-level education.
The committee is exploring whether there is consensus on a sustainable funding model for the sector. This includes an examination of the controversial issue of an income-contingent loan system
Some university presidents are frustrated at delays in establishing a sustainable financial footing for higher education.
UCD president Andew Deeks said: "The Minister appears to be trying to cherry-pick those parts of the Cassells report which won't cause political damage. This is a rearranging of the political deck-chairs as Irish universities are about the slide into a sea of mediocrity."
He added: "If Ireland is to have world-class universities, we need the political courage and will to address this once and for all in a sustainable way."