The Irish department of finance is planning to cap full-time student numbers in universities, institutes of technology and other higher education colleges.
At present, 49 per cent of the relevant age cohort proceeds to higher education. This is expected to grow to 52 per cent in the next two years, lifting full-time numbers from 100,000 to 114,000. In leaked proposals the department makes clear its intention to cap it at that level, but the education sector wants the numbers to go higher.
The debate is taking place behind the scenes in a high-powered review body that is to recommend what growth should take place. Sources say the department is arguing that demand from school-leavers will level off because of demographic factors and the strong economy. It accepts that the percentage of mature students in Irish colleges is very low compared with other countries, but it says that it will be easier to accommodate mature applicants in a few years.
This line is being opposed by the department of education and science, universities and institutes of technology. No figure has been put on the education department's projections, but it is known to be somewhat lower than the universities' ambitious target of 171,000 full-time student numbers by 2015.
The department of education has apparently been arguing that higher education has played a key role in Ireland's successful "Celtic Tiger" economy. While the number of immediate school-leavers is expected to fall in the next century, the department says that it is necessary to increase the participation rate to fuel more growth.
The secondary-school leaving certificate examination is taken by 82 per cent of the age cohort, and 55 per cent goes on to higher education. The Conference of Heads of Irish Universities wants 70 per cent going into higher education by 2015. It says the total numbers projected have to be revised upwards anyway because the introduction of fees in the United Kingdom has depressed demand from Irish students and because more emigrants are returning to take up Ireland's new job opportunities.
The CHIU argues that mature students should account for a quarter of the intake, compared with 2 per cent to 3 per cent now. It projects that total enrolments would rise to just over 134,000 within five years and to 171,700 within ten.
Rather archly, the CHIU submission to the review group says that it is not a function of the group to assume which decisions would be taken based on such things as its view of the cost implications or to recommend or propose particular projections on that basis.
"Similar exercises in the past have fudged policy decisions by citing projections and ignoring the spuriousness of the assumptions on which such projections were based," it says. This is a reference to a previous review of projections in which the finance department issued a minority report. At that time, the department seriously underestimated the expected growth in higher education - a fact that undermines its case on this occasion.