Universities lack cash to survive ‘beyond short time frame’

Talks over €100m emergency funding to help colleges to reopen in September

Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris. Photograph: Gareth Chaney/Collins

 

Many universities do not have financial reserves to survive “beyond a relatively short time frame”, according to Higher Education Authority records that detail the scale of the crisis facing the sector.

There are also growing concerns over the finances of some universities that risk defaulting on loans up to €800 million used to upgrade college campuses.

The deepening crisis facing the sector comes as colleges face the headache of trying to accommodate thousands of students later than expected due to delays releasing the Leaving Cert results.

All universities are revising their plans to receive first-year students and say plans to provide orientation weeks “may not now be possible” and lost time will be made up later in the academic year.

Student groups have also reacted angrily to the three-week delay in issuing results, which they say will add to stress and uncertainty and make it much harder for students to secure accommodation.

Meanwhile, talks are understood to be taking place within Government over emergency funding for third-level education worth about €100 million.

Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris is seeking a package to provide funding to meet costs related to Covid-19, such as supporting the health service response to the pandemic and preparing college campuses for the arrival of students.

Mental health

In addition, funding is likely to include millions of euro for digital devices for students who cannot afford them, as well as extra on-campus counselling and mental health supports.

The funding, say sources, will not extend to giving money for accumulated deficits or losses beyond those related to Covid-19.

The sector estimates that it is facing a €500 million shortfall between now and the end of next year.

This is linked to a sharp drop in the projected number of international students as well as income losses linked to empty student accommodated and cancelled events.

Meanwhile, public health advice for the reopening of college campuses is being finalised and likely to be published next week.

While current guidelines state that a distance of 2m should be maintained, universities are understood to be seeking this distance to be reduced to 1m as long as students wear face masks.

Higher education sources say a move to relax physical distancing rules for colleges will be crucial if colleges are to offer a meaningful experience on campus beyond remote learning.

A 1m rule, say sources, would allow more students to attend lectures and take part in tutorials and laboratory work.