Smaller third-level colleges face end of public funding


PUBLIC FUNDING of smaller third-level colleges is unlikely to continue as a more co-ordinated higher education system is developed, according to the Higher Education Authority.

The authority’s warning is delivered in a discussion paper on the future of higher education published this morning.

The paper also says higher education in Ireland must “strengthen its alignment with the evolving economic needs, and its integration within the education and training system as a whole”.

On smaller colleges, it says these will be consolidated through incorporation into or merger with existing universities, institutes of technology or into technological universities.

“Public funding of these small institutions will not be continued except in circumstances where there are significant reasons of a strategic kind for continuing funding as separate institutions.

“Where appropriate, there will also be consolidation of institutions in the institute of technology sector, dictated by the requirements of sustainability and quality, leading to a smaller number of multi-campus institutions.”

The authority looks ahead to the possible establishment of technological universities and increased moves to build regional clusters of excellence.

In the past, the Higher Education Authority had said the policy of broadly distributing provision to facilitate regional access “took precedence over the creation of focused centres of excellence”.

The paper says care needs to be taken that competition between colleges does not create unnecessary and wasteful duplication.

The authority admits that the perception of the quality of Irish higher education internationally has worsened as staff-student ratios have deteriorated.

It identifies what it calls “two essential drivers of change” in higher education – quality and participation.

“There is a significant tension between these two objectives which needs to be managed in a sustainable way. The provision of education and research by Irish third-level colleges must meet or exceed international standards for quality of outcomes.”

However, it says concerns relating to quality include the rapid expansion of undergraduate programmes with a narrow focus, the academic preparedness of students entering higher education with low levels of prior achievement and the small scale of some recent PhD provision.

All third-level colleges have been asked to respond to the paper within six months.

The authority will then advise Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn on a blueprint for the higher education system, including numbers, types and locations of higher education institutions that will be required over the next 10 to 20 years.

It is intended that this blueprint will be published by the end of this year.