THE SCALE of the financial challenge facing the higher education sector is set out in an internal report prepared by the Higher Education Authority (HEA). It is an impressive, stark document detailing the myriad demands placed on the system and its limited capacity to respond, given existing funding arrangements. Third-level colleges are facing an unprecedented financial crisis. Some €4 billion is required to upgrade building space and to provide facilities for an additional 55,000 students over the next decade.
Higher education is also under pressure to meet the ambitious targets set by Government. A series of high-level reports have identified the pivotal role of a ‘world-class’ higher education system in helping to drive economic revival. But the HEA report exposes the reality of an under-resourced sector. Some 40 per cent of college buildings are “seriously inadequate”.
The HEA report is correct to praise third-level colleges for their efforts in dealing with the last boom in student numbers over the past decade. Irish universities, in particular, continue to punch above their weight internationally. But the system, already fraying at the edges, will be pushed to breaking point by the next surge in student numbers. The HEA report begs several key questions. How can a system struggling to cope with existing student numbers find the additional funding to support a huge influx over the next decade? How can it meet the lofty challenges set by Government when much of the infrastructure is crumbling?
The report makes a compelling case for major investment in higher education and the development of new funding streams, from both the private and public sectors. Six years ago, the OECD said something similar. A “quantum leap” in funding was required, it said, to allow Irish higher education meet emerging challenges.
But little has been done. State funding to the sector has increased only marginally; many colleges have been slow to commercialise and build their own revenue base. And there is the unresolved question of fees. Under pressure from the Green Party, the Government has again backed away from the issue of student tuition charges. It is to be hoped that Minister for Education Mary Coughlan will revive plans for a student contribution. In light of the HEA report, the Greens must also review their principled objection to a graduate tax. The Government cannot have it both ways. It cannot set ambitious targets for the third level colleges – and then walk away from the resultant funding crisis.