Tuition fees may return in Ireland after higher education became a casualty of efforts to rein in public spending in this week's budget.
Trinity College Dublin imposed an immediate freeze on filling new posts, other than those currently advertised, or fully funded research posts. The six other Irish universities and 13 institutes of technology may be forced to follow suit as Wednesday's cuts begin to bite after years of improvements in state funding.
Thousands of students took to the streets on Wednesday to defend the principle behind the Free Fees Initiative.
The government still has to make up its mind on the issue. There was a row in October when education minister Noel Dempster floated the idea of a return to fees. A decision is unlikely before a policy review is completed early next year.
The universities can legally act unilaterally to make up the funding shortfall by reintroducing tuition fees, and some university administrators would like to do so. But if the universities act themselves, there is no guarantee that their core state grants will not be cut further as a result.
The Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development warned the government more than three years ago that it should consider the reintroduction of fees. They were abolished in 1995. At that time they ranged from £1,600 for arts courses to £2,200 for medicine.
Fees will be on the agenda at a meeting of the Conference of Heads of Irish Universities today. Directors of the institutes of technology, where similar cuts have been imposed, met in special session yesterday.