Minister to outline strategy for third level

 

THE HIGHER Education Authority has begun an investigation into the funding crisis across the third-level sector – in a move which will increase the pressure for new student charges or a “cap” on the number of college places available to students.

The authority’s study comes ahead of a major speech by Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn today in which he will, for the first time, detail the Government’s strategy for higher education.

Last week, the Minister conceded it was “hard to see” how the third-level sector could cope with vastly increased student demand without additional income.

During the election campaign, Mr Quinn strongly opposed new student charges, making a personal commitment to the Union of Students in Ireland. But he will be under pressure today to explain how the third-level sector can cope with a projected 30 per cent increase in numbers.

The report, known as a “sustainability study’’, will examine the capacity of higher education to cope with vastly increased numbers. The report, expected within months, will highlight the very serious funding crisis facing the sector.

Last year, the Hunt Report, which charts a 20-year strategy for the sector, backed new student fees and a student loan scheme.

The current funding model, it said, was “unsustainable”, warning that continuing cuts in State support will damage overall standards. The report said annual funding must increase by €500 million per year, from €1.3 billion to €1.8 billion, by 2020. It also said funding should virtually double to €2.25 billion a year by 2030.

To put this in context, the €500 increase in the student contribution fee to €2,000 per year, agreed by the last government, will yield less than €40 million extra for the colleges.

Last night, sources in the higher education system said the authority’s study would help “concentrate minds’’ on the choices facing the system including new student charges/fees, loans or a cap on student numbers.

Last year, the authority’s chief executive, Tom Boland, signalled that a student cap might be necessary as some debt-ridden colleges struggled to accommodate additional numbers.

In the past three years, student numbers in the seven universities and 14 institutes of technology have risen dramatically, despite the cutbacks in government spending.

UCD president Dr Hugh Brady has said the quality of undergraduate education cannot be maintained if funding levels are not increased to reflect the greatly increased numbers of undergraduate admissions. Current spending on higher education in the Republic is already some 28 per cent below many leading states.

Last night, Department of Education sources stressed there had been no discussion of new charges or a cap on student numbers.

In his address today, Mr Quinn will detail his response to the Hunt Report before a specially convened gathering of senior figures at the Royal Irish Academy in Dublin.

The number of new entrants to higher education will increase from 42,000 in 2009 to 65,000 by 2025. Most of the increased demand will come from late entrants, mature students, international students and greater demand for postgraduate study.

Mr Quinn is expected to back the case for a “very small number” of institutes of technology becoming new technological universities, provided they meet very strict criteria.

Over the coming weeks, the authority is expected to detail the criteria for redesignation as a technological university.