In response to the combined demographic and funding challenge, the then Minister for Education and Skills appointed an Expert Group to identify and consider issues related to the long term sustainable funding of higher education in Ireland and to identify funding options for the future.
The expert group report, Investing in National Ambition: A Strategy for Funding Higher Education” (2016) confirmed that higher education makes a hugely positive contribution to the development of individuals, employers, society and the state.
The report concluded that the approach to funding was unsustainable, and that substantial increases in investment in higher education must be made to ensure that the sector can remain viable and provide the capacity to meet the major increase in student demand projected up to 2030.
The expert group report has opened up an important debate in Ireland on how our third level education system could be funded.
The report proposed three main funding options for a more sustainable future funding model. These are:
1. A predominantly state-funded system.
2. Increased state funding with continuing student fees.
3. Increased state-funding with deferred payment of fees through income contingent loans (ICL).
The development of a sustainable funding model for higher education is essential in light of the centrality of higher education to our progress as a country. The future development of Ireland as an inclusive society and a knowledge economy, against the backdrop of rapid technological change will be critically dependant on the quality of our graduates.
In that context, a comprehensive economic evaluation of the funding options presented in the Report of the Expert Group on Future Funding for Higher Education is underway supported under the European Commission DG Reform Programme.
My Department is working closely with the European Commission and the independently appointed consortia of consultants. The key aim of this review is to investigate methods of increasing the sustainability of higher and further education provision in Ireland, including an examination of the funding options. This review commenced in early 2020 and work is expected to be complete towards the latter part of Q2 2021.
My Department will continue to work with stakeholders on this comprehensive analysis of funding options for higher education and the assessment of the appropriate balance in provision across the tertiary education system.
Completion of this work will allow for an informed debate on the appropriate policy approach to future planning and funding of higher and further education provision which is fundamental to Ireland's economic and social sustainability.