Successive governments have spent the better part of a decade considering how to fund higher education in the future.

Meanwhile, universities have complained of a crisis in the sector due to underinvestment, overcrowded classrooms, outdated equipment and falling international rankings.

Students also demanded that more be done to reduce crippling costs, including the €3,000 tuition fee, the highest in the EU, and soaring accommodation costs.

It’s no wonder, then, that Higher and Further Education Minister Simon Harris is calling a long-awaited funding plan for the sector, released on Wednesday, a “historic” day.

But what impact will the announcement have?

For students and families, the goal is to reduce the cost of higher education over time.

This could lead to a reduction in registration fees of €3,000 in increments of approximately €500 per year – depending on economic circumstances – over the next three years.

With the approach of the next legislative elections, registration fees could well drop to €1,500.

The plans also pledge to increase scholarships and lower eligibility thresholds so more families are eligible. Again, the extent of this will depend on future budget negotiations.

These measures are absolutely necessary. For example, the latest estimated costs for a student to study away from home in Dublin is €13,827, according to TU Dublin. For a student who can live at home, the costs are €6,636.

Although just over 40% of students are eligible for scholarships, they do not cover this kind of cost.

The reality, then, is that measures to cushion the cost of the third tier will take several years and may have limited impact given the high cost of living and soaring rents.

And what does childbirth funding mean for universities?

The plan includes an additional investment in core funding, €307 million, over the next three budgets or so, on top of the current annual spending of €2 billion on higher education.

Additional funding is important, but is it transformational? Given that this year an additional €118 million has been spent on higher education, the government simply needs to keep doing what it has been doing for three additional budgets.

What will be expected in return is more important: universities will be required to improve staff-student ratios, close skills gaps, create stronger links with continuing education courses and strengthen access to underrepresented groups in society.

There is enormous potential here, but more clarity is needed on the level of ambition.

For example, will the recruitment freeze, known as the employment control framework, be lifted? How many university courses will be open to post-graduate cert students? And will funding pledges survive the budget process when health and housing need more funds?

It remains to be seen, but if the opportunities are seized, there is scope for higher education in Ireland to be able to climb the rankings, improve the quality of courses and provide graduates with more options outside of the race for CAD points.


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