Significant numbers of Leaving Cert students are likely to defer taking up college places this year because of disruption linked to the coronavirus pandemic, according to an unpublished Higher Education Authority (HEA) report.
The fact that most lectures will take place online, along with changed economic conditions facing families and inability of students to secure summer work, may make it less attractive for many students to go to college in the coming year.
Universities, in particular, are also facing a drop of up to 80 per cent in new international students and 20 per cent in existing international students.
The HEA report also indicated that numbers in universities may end up being capped in the coming year and they would be prevented from recruiting students from institutes of technology.
The sector is also facing a major challenge in adapting college lecture halls to meet social-distancing requirements.
By way of illustration, the report cites how a 500-seater lecture hall would be reduced to 50 participants (or 10 per cent capacity) in a 2m social distancing scenario.
The findings are contained in a HEA report dated May 2020 into the financial implications of the virus on publicly-funded higher education institutions.
Overall, the report highlighted the “immense” financial consequences facing the sector which are estimated to amount to at least €500 million shortfall in total this year and next.
The HEA report said significant Government intervention in the form of a financial support package is required to support institutions through this crisis.
"It is vitally important for Ireland that we have a strong, well-resourced higher education system to meet the evolving social and economic challenges faced in Ireland and internationally and our higher education institutions are well placed to play a pivotal role in our economic recovery," the report said.
“The recovery of the Irish knowledge-based economy is dependent on the delivery of highly skilled graduates.”
A leaked Department of Education discussion document, however, indicated there is resistance within Government to a bailout package for the sector.
This document said the HEA report on the financial challenge facing the sector “does not provide the level of granularity required” to make an informed and evidenced-based funding and budgetary decisions.
“Additionally, this runs the risk of not concentrating Government’s fiscal firepower where it can be most effective in pre-empting failures and maintaining employment levels,” it said.
It said it was “clearly stated” in discussions that there is “no commitment or expectation of additional funding for the education sector at the present time”.
“Pending future decision-making by Government in respect of all of these issues, all additional costs/offsetting of revenue losses would need to be met from within existing budgetary allocations and through cost-saving measures/prioritisation of expenditure,” the discussion document stated.
The document said discussions between HEA and the department have identified a number of institutes and universities which would have “potential cash flow issues” owing to projected loss of revenues.
It said more detailed information is required to assess the financial health of the institutions.
These investigations should examine “what is the base line funding needs to ensure the viability of each institute for the coming academic year in the first instance”.
Pending completion of this, the document said that the Department of Education should ensure it has contingency funding available to it to enable any “necessary crisis liquidity response”.
The document also noted that the nature of some of the State support being sought by the HEA and the university sector relate to commercial and “non-core activities”.
However, it stated that universities are autonomous institutions with freedom to undertake a wide range of commercial activities which fall outside areas of core State provision.
Any move to use public funding to replace this could result in university balance sheets being moved onto the State’s balance sheet. This, it said, could results in a “quite fundamental change in the relationship between the university sector and the State”.