The Irish government is facing contradictory predictions over the number of full-time higher education students likely to enrol in the future. Currently the figure stands at about 105,000, but the influential Economic and Social Research Institute believes there will be a reduction in student numbers for the period 2000-06. The number of 19 to 21-year-olds is expected to fall by nearly 10 per cent over that period and the ESRI predicts that this will impact on higher education enrolments.
However, the universities have strongly rejected the assumption that savings in future investment in higher education can be based on falling numbers.
In their response, university heads argued that the ESRI projections failed to account for the expected increase in participation rates among secondary school leavers, the need to increase participation by lower socio-economic groups, and the growing demand for places by mature students. The percentage of mature students in full-time higher education in Ireland is one of the lowest among countries in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development group.
The universities have accused the ESRI of compounding its original mistake in its advice to government to avoid further expansion of third-level buildings in view of the impending fall in numbers in the relevant age group. This, they argue, is not supported by any analysis and ignores the enormous pressure placed on university building and facilities by recent growth in numbers.
In their response to government, the heads call for additional resources to target disadvantaged groups, reduce student-teacher ratios, provide new buildings and equipment and meet quality demands.
The ESRI recently recommended the reintroduction of tuition fees - which were abolished four years ago - and the introduction of a loans scheme (THES, May 14). The government, however, is expected to reject the advice on tuition fees and has yet to spell out its policies towards student numbers.