Students and third level colleges have united to call on political parties to commit to invest more in higher education to prevent Ireland “losing ground” against international competitors.
In a joint statement, the Union of Students in Ireland, the Irish Universities Association and the Technological Higher Education Association said State funding per student at third levelis now 40 per cent less than it was a decade ago.
They said this funding “crisis” is now compromising the quality of higher education and the student experience.
As a short-term measure, the representative bodies have proposed that the next government invest an extra €100 million per year for the sector over the next three years.
In addition, it wants “at least” an additional €200 million per year from the National Training Fund, which is due to run a surplus of almost €1 billion this year.
Jim Miley, director general of Irish Universities Association, said it was four years since the Cassells report outlined funding options for the sector and warned that the status quo was no longer sustainable.
He said this report has since been referred to an EU-funded study group for further analysis and recommendations.
“Realistically, we will have to wait until late 2020 to get a ‘report about a report’. It will take a further year or more for the political and civil service system to act,” he said.
“We just cannot wait that long. In an increasingly competitive global environment, Ireland’s talent is our future.”
Lorna Fitzpatrick, USI president, said the staff and student community at third level was a significant voting bloc of close to 300,000 people, and perhaps double or treble that when their immediate families are taken into account.
“We say to our politicians and election candidates - these are people living and supporting your local communities. And we say to those people themselves - ask your election candidate to commit to addressing the crisis in third level funding when they ask for your support. It is nothing less than your future and that of your family that is at stake,” she said.
A spokesman for the Department of Education recently pointed out that State funding for the sector has risen significantly.
He said EU spending rules meant that additional expenditure could not be sourced from the fund without a corresponding drop in exchequer spending.
“The EU rules are designed to ensure that growth in public expenditure is sustainable and supports the achievement of key fiscal targets,” the spokesman said.
“The accumulated surplus in the NTF has previously been important in maintaining expenditure levels, particularly in the provision of training for unemployed people, when NTF income declined.”
He also added that there had been “significant” increases in investment on education and training from the fund over recent years.
A further increase in National Training Fund spending of €70 million is planned for 2020.
This has funded a significant expansion in apprenticeships, training for people in employment and in the Springboard+ programme.
However, Dr Joseph Ryan, chief executive of the Technological Higher Education Association, said it was “unimaginable” that the scale of the National Training Fund surplus would be allowed to sit in a government bank account while the “crisis in third level funding continues apace”.
“The stark fact remains that the core funding provided by the State to third level institutions and universities is now 40 per cent less than it was a decade ago. This is at a time of unprecedented growth in the student population and we know that numbers will increase by at least 36,000 or one fifth over the next decade,” he said.