Irish universities are facing an added financial challenge due to unpaid fees, fines and student charges, records show.
More than €560,000 is owed to the State's seven universities and DIT, Ireland's largest institute of technology, in library rental and late return fees alone, according to documents obtained by The Irish Times.
They are also owed outstanding debt of more than €1.3 million in Student Contribution Charges.
Despite being one of Ireland's smallest universities in terms of student population, NUI Maynooth had a bill of almost €450,000 for Student Contribution Charges left unpaid by October 1st, 2016.
Other large amounts under the same heading include legacy debts of €208,000 at the University of Limerick, €176,000 at the Dublin Institute of Technology and €110,000 at Trinity College.
The €231,000 in charges left unpaid at University College Cork prior to the current academic year was spread between 150 students, while just over 100 students of Dublin City University owed €165,000 between them.
The overall figure for unpaid charges is likely to be substantially higher as Ireland's largest university, UCD, was unable to provide a breakdown of how much was owed under this category, as was NUI Galway.
First introduced in 1995 at a nominal rate of £150 (€190), the charge was gradually increased over the following years and rose at a more accelerated rate during the late 2000s as exchequer funding for third-level institutions dwindled in line with austerity measures.
The charge currently stands at €3,000, although about half of the third-level student population is exempt from payment due to household income status.
€170,000 to Maynooth
Maynooth also stood out in terms of monies owed to its library, with a bill of €170,000. Only UCC came close, with a debt of €135,000.
Asked why such large amounts remain outstanding under the categories of student charges and library fees/fines, a spokeswoman for NUI Maynooth said the university does not write off the debts and it does not prevent students with a negative account balance from graduating.
She said the library debt is spread between 14,000 past and former students, almost 10,000 of whom owed less than €10.
When asked if third-party debt collection agencies are used to recoup amounts owed by past or present students, only UCD and DCU said they hired external agencies. The rest perform the function in-house.
NUI Galway failed to respond to this question, and could not provide amounts outstanding for student charges, exam and accommodation fees. However, a spokesman for the university did reveal an overall outstanding student debt of €700,000 as of October 2016.
The responses also revealed a large burden related to unpaid on-campus accommodation fees.
Despite enlisting the services of a third-party collector, UCD still had an outstanding balance of €380,000 for unpaid accommodation fees. Trinity was owed €114,000 and NUI Maynooth €60,000.
Other institutions responded that on-campus accommodation is either not offered to students, or the units are managed by a separate management company whose finances are not subject to Freedom of Information requests.
In a short statement provided to The Irish Times, the Irish Universities Association said: "Given the parlous state of university finances, any issue which exacerbates the situation is of concern."
The current funding regime for third-level institutions has come under intense scrutiny in recent years. The situation has been given a sense of urgency by the faltering performance of the country’s top universities in international rankings tables.
Heads of Irish universities often point to the high levels of fee income generated by international competitors, which can later be reinvested into educational services, as a prominent reason why the State continues to fall behind in this area.
The Government is currently assessing the outcome of a report by former trade union secretary Peter Cassells. He outlines various options for the sector, including the the elimination of the Student Contribution Charge and the possibility of implementing a student loan scheme.