IRELAND: Situation worsens for universities

The perfect higher education storm is developing in Ireland - a burgeoning population has forced enrolment projections upwards, a recession is driving more school leavers and adults into college and, at the same time, forcing cuts in budgets and staffing levels, as well as a political decision not to re-introduce tuition fees during the lifetime of the present government.

Clearly, something has to give.

Last month, the Department of Education quietly revised its projections for full-time student numbers. Enrolments have risen sharply to 155,000 and are now expected to climb to 215,900 in 10 years and then to a peak of 268,100 a decade later.

The projections appeared without fanfare on the department's website in the last few weeks and are based on a number of new pressures, including:

* Increasing births since the mid-1990s.
* The impact of recession on unemployment and demand for further and higher education.
* The competition for skilled workers and higher-education graduates internationally as economies trade up the value chain.

The department expects the proportion of mature students will continue to rise from its current level of 13% to 19% by 2016 and to 25% by 2022. It also predicts fast growth in the number of post graduate students and undergraduates from outside the state.

And it estimates that 73% of secondary students who take the Leaving Certificate examination will go on to higher education.

This growth is coming at a bad time for higher education for a number of reasons. Controversy developed recently over comments by a number of American industrialists about the quality of some Irish graduates, fuelled by reports about grade inflation when it was confirmed the percentages of firsts had doubled in more than a decade.

Voices proclaiming that Ireland was simply getting into line with UK universities were barely listened to in a country looking for scapegoats and solutions for the massive unemployment and debt problems.

The Irish economy may not be as bad as that of Greece but people are still wondering how the Celtic Tiger boom went so horribly wrong. They are adjusting to pay cuts in the public sector and a haemorrhaging of jobs in the private sector.

Higher education is seen as a refuge by school-leavers who want to ride out the economic maelstrom and by jobless adults as a means of getting qualifications that may get them back to work.

But it is clear the country cannot afford the projected expansion while still aspiring to offer a world-class higher education system. Tuition fees are off the agenda for the moment following a renegotiation of the programme for government by the minority Green Party.

But fees or a graduate contribution will be back for discussion when an eagerly awaited higher education strategy report is published shortly. The only alternative, suggests the Higher Education Authority, is to consider a cap on student numbers, something politicians are reluctant to do.