On Tuesday 29th January, the Director of Governance and Funding for the European Universities Association (EUA), Thomas Estermann said at a seminar organised by the Irish Universities Association (IUA), that despite the increase in funding to Irish universities in 2017 and 2018 after a decades of cuts,“the long-term sustainability of the higher education system in Ireland remains an issue. Funding per student has declined, and third level capital infrastructure is underfunded.”

Consisting of EU Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport & Minister of State for Higher Education, Mary Mitchell O’Connor TD; former Secretary General of the EU Commission and Chair of UCC Governing Authority, Catherine Day; Higher Education Authority representative Gemma Irvine and Professor of Modern History at Trinity College Dublin and Chair of the Irish Research Council, Prof Jane Ohlmeyer, the seminar addressed the research which categorised the Irish university system, along with the Serbian university system, as “in danger,” due to a combination of rising student numbers entering higher education coupled with a lack of adequate government funding.

Despite the fact that the number of students entering the Irish universities system has increased by 25% in ten years, GDP figures released from the Department of Education show that funding to third-level institutions in 2017, stood at half of what the funding was in 2012.

In 2017, the Irish Times reported that the government decided to lift pay restrictions on colleges hiring “world-leading scientists and engineers on salaries up to €250,000,” overturning the rule of prohibiting public sector employees from earning more that the Taoiseach’s €190,000 salary.

Despite this, according to the figures Estermann presented, Ireland is ranked as the second to last country in the EU for “staffing autonomy” which the EUA described as the ability of universities to independently make its own staff hiring decisions.

Director General of the IUA, Jim Miley said “these figures illustrate just how out of step Ireland is with our European neighbours when it comes to funding third level education and supporting the autonomy of our third level institutions.“ He further called on the government to “prioritise the reform of the funding model for higher education as recommended by the Cassells Report, the Government-appointed Expert Group that reported almost three years ago.”

“Ireland’s universities are already taking advantage of opportunities for collaboration with their European colleagues under the new European Universities Initiative, building on the strong links they enjoy with European-wide institutions through research collaboration, Erasmus and other programmes.”

In a recent call for proposal that was published by the European Commission earlier in 2019, they requested a total budget of €2,733.4 million for the Eramus+ programmes, representing a 10% increase on the budget in 2018. According the EUA website, “€30 million of this has been earmarked for European Universities, taking forward this initiative as endorsed by the EU leaders and as part of the EU’s ambitions to build a European Education Area by 2025.”

The University World News reported in an interview with Estermann “over the entire period 2008-17, funding fell from around €1.5 billion to €1 billion (US$1.7 billion to US$1.15 billion), while student enrolment rose from 160,000 to 200,000…So despite funding going up again in 2017 by about €35 million or 3.5%, it is still very far away from the 2008 figure, yet there are around 40,000 or 26% more students in the system.”

Estermann also expressed hope over the impact to the Irish university system over the fallout from Brexit, stating that Brexit could open up opportunities of attracting academics and student that would have otherwise attended British universities.“There are opportunities out there for Ireland but without major investment in the system, I doubt they will be able to take them,” he told University World News. European Commissioner Tibor Navracsics reiterated Estermann’s sentiments, stating that Brexit may present “a window of opportunity for Irish universities,” believing “continental Europe would be looking for good-quality English-speaking universities…and [Irish universities] may benefit from a pool of students who want to study science and humanities subjects in English.”

However the supposed benefit of Brexit to Irish third level institutions may not be as straight forward as Estermann and Navracsics suggest. Navracsics told University World News “the challenge Irish universities face is that their capacity to hire academic and admin staff has in the past decade been restricted as a consequence of stricter employment regulations established when the economic crisis hit Ireland, including stricter rules on hiring public servants that made it more difficult for universities to hire, and therefore less competitive.”