Insufficient state funding is pushing Irish universities down in international rankings, the president of the University of Limerick (UL) Prof Kerstin Mey has said.
The Irish Examiner has reported that, in an address at the first in-person conferring ceremony in UL in two years, Mey called for “urgent Government action” on a new funding model for the sector.
Mey said that the Irish third-level sector is struggling to compete internationally with other universities accessing other resources.
She welcomed the establishment of the new Technological University of the Shannon Midlands Midwest, but said there was little point in forming new universities without adequate funding available for higher education.
Mey said: “The coronavirus pandemic has catalysed a monumental shift to virtual and hybrid learning for the entire, global, higher education sector.”
“While this transition has come with challenges to established ways of developing, imparting, and assessing knowledge and skills, it has opened up new opportunities to facilitate learning and engagement”, she continued.
“We must seize these opportunities and transform tertiary education now to safeguard the resilience of the sector and its ability to meet the challenges of tomorrow”.
Earlier this month, the long-awaited Higher Education Authority Bill was published, which included sweeping new reforms to university governance and how universities will be granted state funding.
Universities could be asked to refund state money they have been granted if the Higher Education Authority (HEA) feels the institution is not meeting the conditions attached to state funding.
The bill states that state funding to higher-education institutions is subject to an array of conditions, including operating “to standards of good governance” and compliance with guidelines, codes and policies issued by the HEA.
Institutions must also “comply on a continuous basis” with a funding framework drawn up by the HEA with the approval of the Minister for Higher Education. The framework “may specify different criteria, terms and conditions for the allocation of funding”.
The government is also currently considering a reduction in the student contribution charge as part of a new funding package for higher education.
Income thresholds for student grants may also be lowered, allowing more students to avail of financial assistance.
The proposals are part of a set of policies to be published in January based in part on a report into the future funding of third level conducted by the European Commission.
Last October, Minister for Education Simon Harris said that a verdict on the Cassells report, published in 2016, would be published by the end of 2021. The report outlines three different options to fix funding models in higher education.
The first option is the abolition of the student contribution and the creation of a predominantly state-funded system. Introduced in 2011, the contribution is currently €3,000 per year and represents the highest third-level fees in the EU since the departure of the UK from the bloc.
The second option is leaving the current student contribution charge in place and increasing state funding of universities and other third-level institutions.
The third and most contentious option is the introduction of an income-contingent loan system. After several years of lobbying the government to introduce a system of student loans, Irish universities u-turned on the best way to fund higher education in 2018.