Ireland is one of just two European countries where the third-level education system is "in danger" due to a funding shortfall and rising student numbers, according to new research.
Research by Thomas Estermann of the European Universities Association shows third-level funding in Ireland as a share of gross domestic product was half of what it was in 2017 compared to 2012.
This was despite a growth in student numbers, which has seen enrolment at third-level climb by a quarter between 2008/9 and 2017/18. Serbia was judged to be the only other country where the third-level system was at risk.
Mr Estermann also presented figures which showed Ireland was second-worst country in the EU – ahead only of Croatia – for staffing autonomy, which relates to the independence of universities to make decisions on staff recruitment.
“While recurrent funding to Irish universities increased in 2017 and 2018 after almost a decade of cuts, the long-term sustainability of the higher education system in Ireland remains an issue,” Mr Estermann said.
“Funding per student has declined, and third-level capital infrastructure is underfunded. Meanwhile, restrictions remain on staff recruitment, leaving Ireland near the bottom for the autonomy of its universities to recruit staff. Ireland’s GDP growth suggests possibilities for renewed investment in its universities.”
He was speaking at a seminar organised by the Irish Universities Association (IUA), the representative body for Ireland's seven universities.
Jim Miley, director general of the IUA said the figures illustrated "just how out of step Ireland is with our European neighbours" when it comes to funding third-level education and supporting the autonomy of our third-level institutions.
“Despite the significant increase in third-level students, which now stands at an all-time high, the higher education sector in Ireland remains seriously underfunded,” he said.
"The Government and the Oireachtas must prioritise the reform of the funding model for higher education as recommended by the Cassells Report, the Government-appointed expert group that reported almost three years ago."
The seminar was also briefed on a new initiative that seeks to encourage the emergence by 2024 of about 20 “European universities”.
The aim is that these networks of universities will enable students to obtain a degree by combining studies in several EU countries and contribute to the international competitiveness of European universities.
Earlier this month Trinity College Dublin became the first Irish university to join a new partnership under the initiative, alongside the University of Barcelona, Utrecht University, the University of Montpellier and Eötvös Loránd University in Hungary.
The EU’s education commissioner Tibor Navracsics told the seminar that EU funding for Erasmus will shortly be doubled, with the aim of increasing and broadening student participation threefold.
Minister of State for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor said European university alliances were a step forward in strengthening existing European networks.
“Irish higher education institutions have long delivered in this area and are valuable strategic partners,” she said,
She said there was “ enormous potential” for Irish universities to partner with their European counterparts to expand the horizons of knowledge, enhance collaboration across boundaries and ensure our students reach their full potential.
"These alliances can play an important part in achieving our aim of guaranteeing that all students have access to the best opportunities across Europe, regardless of which member state they call home," she added.