Third-level sector needs additional €500m


THE HIGHER education system requires additional funding of up to €500 million a year to keep pace with record student demand and to meet Government targets for the economy, an expert group has concluded.

Current funding of the sector is “unsustainable”, while continuing cuts in State support will damage overall standards, according to the national strategy for higher education.

The Hunt report is also sharply critical of the Leaving Cert. It says students entering higher education directly from school often lack the skills needed for successful engagement at college.

With colleges facing a 30 per cent increase in student numbers, the expert group – chaired by economist Dr Colin Hunt – says annual funding must increase from €1.3 billion to €1.8 billion a year by 2020. It says funding should virtually double to €2.25 billion by 2030.

To put this in context, the recent €500 increase in the student contribution fee – announced in the Budget – will yield less than €40 million for the colleges.

Overall, the report appears sceptical about the prospect of any such funding – despite the fact that current spending on higher education in the Republic is already some 28 per cent below many leading states.

The report, which will be officially published by Minister for Education Mary Coughlan next week, sets out a 20-year strategy for the sector. Details of its findings were first reported in The Irish Timeslast August.

The strategy group backs student fees and the urgent introduction of student loans to help bridge the funding gap. It wants a new department expert group to design an “appropriate loan system”.

It backs the introduction of more stringent rules – including a new assets test – for those seeking higher education grants.

On the Leaving Cert, it says “many people believe that second-level education does not prepare students adequately for the challenges of higher education”.

It says third-level colleges should review and reform their first-year curriculum, offering more broadly ranged courses. “At present higher education requires students to choose a specialised area of study too early.”

The report also highlights the wealth gap in college access.

Only one-third of those from a semi-skilled or unskilled background proceed to college. This compares to a participation rate of 100 per cent for the children of higher professionals and 89 per cent for farmers.

Dr Hunt is a former adviser to Taoiseach Brian Cowen in the Department of Finance.

Other members of the strategy group include Brigid McManus, secretary general of the Department of Education; Michael Kelly, former chairman of the Higher Education Authority; Shane Kelly, former president of the USI; Dr John Hegarty, provost Trinity College Dublin; and Paul Rellis, managing director of Microsoft Ireland.

The full text of the Hunt report is available on