An amount of €630.5 million has been provided in the 2004 Estimates for universities and HEA designated institutions. I have no plans to provide additional funding to the sector this year.
From 1997 to 2004 there has been an increase of almost €300 million in the recurrent provision to the university sector. This represents an increase of approximately 90% over this period. Overall funding, capital and current, for the wider higher education sector will stand at €1.48 billion in 2004. This is up €631 million or 74% on 1997 levels.
I am aware that the universities will be challenged in the short term by the constraints on recurrent Exchequer funding placed on them in 2004, having regard to overall cost pressures. I appreciate that individual institutions are required to find economies and to become more streamlined in some of their operations in order to reconcile available budgets with pre-existing demands and commitments. This must be viewed, however, in the context of overall increases in investment in higher education over recent years and the Government's longer term strategic objective for excellence in the sector.
Ireland's spend on higher education as a percentage of GDP in 2000 ranked us eighth out of 29 OECD countries looked at. If GNP, as opposed to GDP, is used as the comparator for Ireland, we would be placed among the top ranking OECD countries on this measure.
The Government has identified the placement of our higher education system at the top rank of the OECD in terms of quality and levels of participation as a key national strategic issue and we are continuing to work towards that. In this context, I have asked the OECD to conduct a wide-ranging review of higher education in Ireland and this is currently under way. The objective of this review is to lay down a strategy for future excellence for higher education in Ireland in the context of the intensely competitive global environment in which we now operate. Moving forward, we need to measure ourselves against the best systems worldwide if we want to build on the strong foundations for success that we already enjoy here in Ireland. The OECD review will provide us with that international reference point and will consider all of the issues and challenges associated with achieving those goals.