A sustainable State-funded model for third-level education would be needed to offset any possible decrease to the annual student contribution, the Oireachtas education committee has heard.
Jim Miley, director general of the Irish Universities Association, said the sector has been underfunded for years and that any reduction to the charge would create need to met with more Government funding.
“Access to higher education has been a success story in Ireland, with the proportion of 25 to 34-year-olds with a third level qualification at around 60 percent, well above EU averages,” he said.
However, Ireland’s total public expenditure on higher education as a proportion of gross national income was just 0.6 per cent, as opposed to an OECD and EU average of 1 per cent, Mr Miley said.
“This puts Ireland joint second last in OECD league tables.”
He added that there was a risk that education quality would decline, and the student to staff ratio in Ireland is currently 23 to one, well ahead of the OECD average of 15 or 16 to one.
Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris last month signalled that he would bring a proposal to Cabinet to reduce the €3,000 student contribution charge. It is understood that should the proposal be approved, the scale of the reduction would not be decided until the budget in October.
The 2016 Cassells Report on the future of higher education funding called for additional annual core funding of €600 million by last year. However, Mr Miley said the actual increase in recurrent State grant funding in “real terms” had been just €121 million last year.
Fine Gael TD Paul Kehoe said the Student Universal Support Ireland (SUSI) grant system needs to be “torn asunder” and reformed. He spoke about helping a first year student access the grant after he was initially denied because he was “point something of a kilometre” out of the catchment area.
After “painful” and “the most ridiculous” phone calls with SUSI, Mr Kehoe said the student received the grant, without which he would not have been able to attend college.
“[SUSI] are financed by the state, you would swear it was coming out of their own pockets,” he said.
Crude and inflexible
Mr Miley said recent changes to SUSI are welcome but do not go far enough, as the current criteria are crude and inflexible. He said that while the grant has done a lot for students by covering their fees, some are not getting enough because they still cannot afford to live while in college.
Student accommodation is another serious issue for the sector, according to Dr Joseph Ryan, chief executive of the Technological Higher Education Association.
“The increase in student numbers is creating an unprecedented demand for suitable, affordable student accommodation which has been exacerbated by the wider societal housing need,” he said.
Dr Ryan said that students and families are now competing for the same houses on the private rental market. He said that when institutions borrow money to build accommodation, the prices they charge students to cover the cost is unaffordable for many. “We need Government help to alleviate this.”