Universities say they may be forced to cap places for Irish students over the coming years due to funding shortages facing the sector.
The Irish Universities Association (IUA) says a combination of growing student numbers over the coming years and State under-investment means colleges will be forced to make hard decisions.
"As numbers grow, universities are fearful that they will be put in a position where places for Irish students would have to be curtailed or replaced by higher fee-paying international students," said Jim Miley, director general of the IUA.
Student numbers in higher education are forecast to grow by up to 25 per cent over the coming decade due to a demographic bubble.
However, universities argue that this will place an “intolerable strain on the already under-resourced university system”.
Many universities have been turning to highly lucrative international students to help bridge funding shortfalls, who are charged fees of €9,250-€54,000, depending on the area of study.
The number of international students from outside the EU studying in Irish universities has increased by 42 per cent in recent years, up from 13,000 in 2014 to 18,500 last year.
Irish higher education institutions receive far less for Irish students who pay a contribution charge of €3,000 a year.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar last week confirmed that there would be no increase in student contribution charges and firmly ruled out a student loan scheme.
However, DCU president and chairman of the IUA Brian MacCraith said universities could not continue to expand indefinitely without extra State funding.
“Unless the Government and the broader political community are prepared to deliver a sustainable core funding solution, the opportunities afforded to today’s students may be curtailed for many current and future primary and secondary students. As a society, we cannot let this happen,” he said.
The association issued the warning as it launched what it says is the first major study on the economic impact of universities on the economy. The Indecon report says the State’s seven universities contribute a total of €8.9 billion to the economy. It also estimates that they support a total of some 21,800 full-time jobs.
While funding for the third-level sector tumbled during the economic downturn, the Government says it has been investing millions of euro extra over recent years.
It says an increased levy on employers is also generating significant additional funds, while a “super surplus” in the National Training Fund will provide €300 million extra over the coming years for a “ human capital initiative” for third-level institutions to bid for.