Cuts place Ireland's university sector at competitive disadvantage

Speaking to-day, 3rd November, 2003 at the publication of a paper on the Future Funding of the Irish University Sector, Dr. Seamus Smyth, Chairman of the Conference of Heads of Irish Universities (C.H.I.U.), highlighted the deteriorating funding situation for Irish universities and cast doubt on the Government’s aspirations for the sector internationally.

When the abolition of fees is taken into account, direct support per student for universities actually fell by EUR1,240 between 1995 and 2001. The sector has coped over this period by increasing productivity but we are now at the limits where cracks are beginning to show. We are now very concerned about the impact these stealth cuts in the university sector are now having on quality, he said.

The paper commissioned from FarrellGrantSparks (FGS) Consulting by C.H.I.U. analysed the current quantum and mix of funding sources for Irish universities and compared how the sector rated against its peers internationally.

According to the FGS Paper, the sector in Ireland with 73,000 students currently enrolled has been a major contributor to economic growth over the past five years with investment in university education providing significant returns both to the public good and to individuals.

Recognising the important contribution of the sector and the vital role it has to play in embedding a knowledge based economy, the Government has set the target of Ireland’s university sector being in the top rank of OECD countries. However, the FGS Paper concludes that across most of the key comparators, Ireland lies around mid table and the gap between Ireland and the top rank is set to widen.

For example:

  • Ireland is ranked joint 16th out of 28 countries in terms of spend on third level relative to per capita GDP.
  • Ireland is ranked 17th out of 28 countries in terms of actual amount spent on each third level student.
  • Ireland’s universities have a worse student:teacher ratio than universities in 15 out of 20 countries.

From the perspective of the universities there would now appear to be clear disconnect between the ambition of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment for our knowledge based economy and the current policy being pursued by the Departments of Education and Science and Finance, Dr. Smyth said.

Against a clear need for greater investment, all of the recent trends have been in the wrong direction and nothing short of a step change in the method and quantum of funding for the sector is required if we are to reach our national goals and underpin the future viability of our knowledge based economy.

Third level education is of huge importance to very many Irish families but what many people do not realise is that it is now an internationally traded service. If our sector is not competing with the best we will not attract world class teachers and researchers and quality will suffer.

C.H.I.U. has published this paper as a key input to the forthcoming OECD Review of Higher Education. However, the timing of its publication, in advance of the publication of next year’s estimates is designed to send a clear message to Government about the current funding situation.

While future funding is, we believe at the core of any debate on higher education, the Universities are also committed to a wider agenda of change encompassing action on issues such as access and disadvantage, quality and accountability, Dr. Smyth concluded.


Tim Collins: 086 8121555
Michael McGrath: 087 2837687