Uncertain election means third-level reforms may be delayed

Analysis: Higher education is in crisis following seven years of sharp funding cuts

Politicians are quick to praise the role of higher education in Ireland. Our universities, they say, are creating jobs, raising living standards and giving Ireland an edge in the global market. But they aren't so fast when it comes to taking tough decisions to ensure third-level education is properly funded.

After seven years of spending cuts, rising student numbers and falling numbers of academic staff, the sector is under pressure as never before.

State funding for universities has fallen by about half since the economic crisis. Falling numbers of academics are affecting their ability to provide high-quality education and qualifications.

The €3,000 student contribution means many students and families – especially those outside grant thresholds – are struggling to meet the cost of college.


High birth rates mean the number of students entering higher education is projected to grow by almost 30 per cent by 2028.

Annual funding will need to rise by another €1 billion or so just to meet this demand.

An expert group on the future funding for higher education was established almost two years ago to draw up a series of options for the Government on how to reform the funding system.

The report, submitted to the Department of Education recently, pulls no punches.

"The funding system is simply not fit for purpose," says the group's chair, Peter Cassells, in the forword.

“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 within the system.”

The problem is clear: but will a future government be willing to act on its proposals?

Given the fragile nature of the public finances and EU spending restrictions, most experts acknowledge a student loan scheme is the only realistic way of providing the kind of funding needed in the medium term.

However, politically, it is the most controversial.

In theory, both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil are in favour of a student loan scheme, even though both parties side-stepped the issue in their election manifestos.

Fine Gael, which proposed a graduate tax in its 2011 general election manifesto, is broadly supportive of a student loan scheme. Its 2011 proposal involved students contributing about a third of the cost of their course after entering employment and reaching a set income threshold.

Fianna Fáil, based on a policy paper drawn up late last year, is opposed to fee increases but supportive of income-contingent loans.

There is also the question of whether the State can afford to back a loan scheme that would require significant upfront funding. An arrangement to keep the costs off the State’s balance sheet would be needed. But as the Irish Water debacle shows, this is easier said than done.

We know this, however: if Ireland as a society, a State and an economy aspires to global competitiveness, it will need to urgently grasp the nettle of third-level funding.