CAO applications have hit a new record of almost 80,000, causing the head of the Higher Education Authority (HEA) to warn that colleges are at “tipping point”.
Demand for places through the centralised applications agency rose to 79,229 by the time the CAO closed its late applications facility earlier this month.
The figure is up about 1,500 on this time last year, and more than 3,000 higher than after the late applications deadline in May 2012.
CAO applications are more than 15,000 above what they were in 2005 – the additional annual demand is almost the equivalent to the student population of NUI Galway alone.
The rise in applications is certain to sharpen competition for places on some courses – and it is also stretching college resources to their limits.
Courses already seeing an increase in popularity this year include business, construction, engineering, technology, law and architecture.
The ongoing growth in third-level student numbers – up 25,000 overall in five years – comes in the face of massive cuts in funding and staff numbers since the economic crash.
Government spend on higher education has dropped from €1.4bn in 2007/08 to €860m for 2015/16. While the income from students and other sources, such as research, has increased, overall funding is less than what it was in 2007.
The cocktail of more students, less funding and fewer staff has raised fears that educational quality will suffer.
Now HEA chief executive Tom Boland has said there is “increasing concern that we may be at a tipping point”.
Writing for the Irish Independent, Mr Boland warned colleges cannot wait for the outcome of an expert group on funding higher education into the future.
“Quite simply, it is not reasonable to expect colleges to accept significant additional students without both significant capital and staff investment”, he says.
Mr Boland said that, in the medium term, the higher education funding group under the chairmanship of Peter Cassells, the former general secretary of the Irish Congress of Trades Unions (ICTU), offered a good prospect of finding a sustainable solution to the funding conundrum.
“But we need to take account now of these pressures and prepare for those astonishing numbers – or our system will not be able to cope.”
The autumn budget provides the next opportunity for the Government consider the funding situation at third-level, but it is up against competing demands from primary and second-level.
The Cassells group is preparing a number of reports for Education Minister Jan O’Sullivan, the last of which is due by the end of the year.
The group will outline options for future funding of higher education and one possibility will be an increased contribution from students, such as through a loan system.
Next September the student charge will rise to €3,000 and Ms O’Sullivan has said that it will remain at that figure in 2016 – but the big question is what will happen after that.
With a general election due in the spring, it is expected that the funding issue will not be tackled until the new Government is in place – and there is no way of knowing what priority will be given to it.
Any funding formula that involved a return to higher fees, even a loan where graduates would repay after reaching a certain income level, would be certain to meet resistance.