Higher education sector under pressure as never before

Without funding reform, third-level institutions will not be able to cope with demand

When Philip Nolan combed through the latest college application figures for Maynooth university on Wednesday morning, he felt conflicted.

The university had just recorded its highest-ever level of demand. But there was also the looming dilemma of how to cope with ever-increasing student numbers.

“It’s a daunting challenge,” says Nolan, who is president and chief officer of the university. “We’re about to run out of space. We can’t increase places in our science programmes to meet demand. Our labs are at capacity. We’re teaching students in overcrowded lecture theatres.”

The university is at the heart of the fastest-growing region in the country: the Dublin commuter belt.

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Numbers have jumped from just under 9,000 in 2008 to more than 11,000 this year. It projects that numbers will rise by a further 3,000-4,000 over the coming years.

Yet employment restrictions mean staffing numbers have fallen in recent years.

“Every system has a level of resilience,” Nolan says. “You can absorb cuts for a time. But you run out of spare capacity or people being willing to work for 50 hours instead of 40 . . . Unless there’s a change in the way we’re funded, we won’t be able to educate the numbers we anticipate coming here.”

Maynooth is not alone. After seven years of spending cuts, rising student numbers and falling numbers of academic staff, the higher education sector is under pressure as never before.

State funding has dropped almost 40 per cent, from €1.4 billion in 2007-08 to about €860 million this year.

Hikes in the student registration charge – which has ballooned to about €3,000 a year – have failed to plug the gap. This up-front contribution is so big that many students and families, especially those who fall just outside the grant thresholds, are struggling to meet the cost of college.

Birth rates

If anything, the pressure will grow. High birth rates mean the number of students entering higher education is projected to grow by almost 30 per cent over the next decade or so.

The biggest universities have been best-placed to generate private income. Trinity College Dublin, University College Dublin and University College Cork, for example, now get most of their funding from non-State sources, such as fees from international students, research, and spin-out companies.

For the country’s 14 institutes of technology, the situation is bleaker. They have less access to private income and are legally prohibited from borrowing.

At least five third-level institutions – including four institutes of technology – are in financially vulnerable positions as they struggle to cope with cuts in State funding and rising student numbers.

Gerry Quinn, president of the Teachers' Union of Ireland, which represents academic staff at institutes of technology, says that while growing numbers are welcome, a failure to maintain funding and staffing levels is having a negative impact on the student experience.

“Students now experience larger class sizes, less access to laboratories and libraries, and sharp cuts to tutorials,” he says.

Not enough seats

One institute of technology lecturer says there are days when there aren’t enough seats for students.

“They are literally pinching them from other rooms,” he says. “The place is overcrowded. Software on computers is outdated. We’re in danger of not being able to deliver core modules in courses.”

It's little surprise, perhaps, that Irish universities have been sliding down the international rankings. The proportion of students to staff is one of the highest in Europe, while many grumble that there isn't time for the kind of cutting-edge research that is key to an institution's international reputation.

An expert group on the future funding of higher education was established almost two years ago to draw up a series of reform options. Its report, submitted recently to the Department of Education and due to be published soon, states things bluntly.

"The funding system is simply not fit for purpose," says the group's chairman, Peter Cassells, in the foreword. "It fails to recognise the current pressures facing higher education institutions or the scale of the coming demographic changes. These pressures are now seriously threatening quality."

The report lists three main options to fund the system, but most experts acknowledge that only one – a student loan scheme – is a realistic way of providing the funding needed in the medium term. This would involve greater State funding, more contributions from students and a higher level of financing from industry.

Philip Nolan believes cuts to funding have had an impact on the quality of learning.

“We’ve had to make a trade-off,” he says. “Do you just cap your numbers, or try to offer an education to more students that’s 90 per cent as good as it should be?”