Higher education: funding reform is vital

Brexit is a golden opportunity for our third-level colleges


The fact that Irish universities are experiencing a significant increase in applications from international students is encouraging. It indicates that despite a decade of funding cuts and rising student numbers, higher education in Ireland retains a good reputation abroad. Even if some of this surge is linked to anxiety among students over Brexit and the election of Donald Trump, the upward trend is positive for a sector where competition is fierce for the best and brightest.

The increase in numbers is reflected across the universities. The highest is in University College Cork where applications from students from outside the EU have risen by 40 per cent. University College Dublin has recorded a rise of 26 per cent with Trinity College Dublin also experiencing significant increases. The students are mostly from India, China, the US and Canada and they are applying predominantly for courses at post graduate level. As a result they pay higher tuition fees and provide a lucrative revenue stream.

However, the spike in applications throws into sharp focus the pressure that many of our colleges are under. Senior academics openly acknowledge that funding shortages now threaten the quality of many third-level qualifications. Overcrowded classes, reduced access to tutorials and outdated computer systems are common. If anything, pressure will continue to mount. Our expanding population means enrolment at third-level will grow by at least 25 per cent over the next 15 years or so.

Brexit, in theory, poses a golden opportunity for higher education: to increase international student numbers, secure a greater share of EU research funding and boost our global standing. This will only happen, however, if the system is properly funded to allow it to expand through greater contributions from the State, employers and students. Capping student numbers would be foolish and harmful in an economy where demand for graduates is set to grow over the coming years.

The current funding system for higher education does not take account of the pressures facing institutions in the sector and the scale of the coming demographic changes. It also fails to fully recognise the pressures on families and students due to the high living and maintenance costs associated with studying and successfully progressing through college.

Although some extra funding is likely from increases in a payroll levy on industry, this will not come close to meeting the kind of resources needed to build a world-class higher education system. To date, there has precious little political will to tackle these issues. Nor has there been any sign of compromise from the main political parties. Doing nothing is not be an option. The status quo is not sustainable.