College enrollments rise while state funding falls

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Last week, we reported that the number of college applications arriving at the Central Applications Office was the highest ever. In all likelihood, we can expect the figure to grow in the coming years: the Department of Education & Skills estimates that student numbers will increase from 168,000 in 2012 to 200,000 by 2025.

But who’s going to fund such a high level of college participation?

At the moment, there is no certain answer to the question. It’s difficult to see how the trend of decreased state support could be reversed. The total exchequer funding for universities dropped by over-one third (or €302 million) over the period from 2008 to 2014. That’s to say nothing of state funding for colleges without university status.

The two viable options that could accommodate such attendance at college without a deterioration in the quality of courses and services available to students are higher fees (i.e. greater financial contributions from students) or state investment. The former would put families under yet greater pressure while the latter would put state resources under further pressure.

But perhaps the state should consider the prize of such investment rather than the price. In a piece that appeared in the Irish Times, Joe O’Connor, President of the Students Union of Ireland, wrote:

‘We must break away from the short-termist corner the recession backed us into, and appreciate that Ireland’s real competitive advantage lies not in our low corporation tax rate, but through consistently producing the highly skilled, highly qualified graduates that will form the foundation of our future workforce.’

‘Ireland must strive to be renowned as an education and skills haven, not a tax haven,’ he concluded.

And he is, by and large, correct. Investing in education is investing in people. It is safeguarding a future that is better, both economically and socially. We can only hope that the state works up a plan which reflects this.


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