University teachers in Ireland have accused the government of incoherence in its strategy to deal with growing numbers of full-time students.
The Irish Federation of University Teachers is threatening not to back expansion unless adequate resources are provided. University administrators have issued similar warnings.
Their comments come in the wake of a leaked draft report to the Education Ministry which envisages continued growth in student numbers over the next decade. Numbers have already risen from 19,000 in the 1965/66 academic year to more than 90,000 at present and the report details proposals for increasing this further to 120,000 in a decade's time.
Such an expansion would push the participation rate from 40 per cent of pre-university school leavers to more than 50 per cent and lead to an increase in mature students from 3.7 per cent to 15 per cent.
The report was prepared by a Committee on the Future Development of Higher Education which looked at several options. It ruled out freezing intake at present level because of the unmet demand for college places and the country's need for high-level qualifications to attract investment. It rejected open access on grounds of cost and instead opted for a gradual expansion.
The state currently spends about IRPounds 350 million (Pounds 354.6 million) a year on higher education and the committee argued that the annual cost of each additional place should be IRPounds 4,000 a year or IRPounds 120 million extra annually if the recommended expansion takes place.
On top of the recurrent costs provision would have to be made for capital costs for building and equipment of the order of IRPounds 400 million, most of which would have to be spent in the next few years.
The costs involved are huge and the government is already under pressure both to keep public spending in check and to increase spending at primary and secondary school levels. But the colleges have made it clear that they want additional resources if they are to expand intake further.
Thomas Mitchell, provost of Trinity College Dublin, said that the universities had increased their intake of students very rapidly in recent decades without a corresponding rise in state financial support.
IFUT president Eugene Wall said that the government was responding to rising public expectations of higher education opportunities. "Unfortunately, quality is usually one of the first casualties of political expediency" said Mr Wall who added that it would be indefensible if educational quality was to be traded off against increased participation rates.
"The government must recognise that if it intends to increase the numbers of students in higher education this will inevitably and unavoidably entail significantly increased expenditure. If the government is unwilling to countenance this, it should grasp the nettle and limit the numbers entering higher education accordingly," he added.
The government is abolishing tuition fees and partly offsetting the costs by removing tax relief from many covenants. Critics say the move will not create extra places nor significantly aid disadvantaged groups.