The numbers game

According to a report in the Irish Independent, the Department of Education and Science expects third level student numbers to rise over the next 20 years from 155,100 now to 268,100 (which is a curiously precise number), via 215,900 in ten years from now. A number of demographic factors are set to contribute to this, including the growing birth rate in Ireland and the growth in participation in higher education by both school leavers and people of a more mature age. The report in the Independent raises the obvious issue of funding, and makes the assumption that another €1 billion (presumably at today’s prices) will have to be found to pay for this increase. A worry that the higher education sector may have is that over the 20 years in question the state may well decide not to fund the 70 per cent growth in numbers but will simply ask the universities to absorb the additional cost – which is the approach currently being adopted.

But if we are to continue to pursue major growth in higher education, there are other issues we need to address in a much more explicit manner: (a) can current pedagogical methods satisfactorily address a system which not only has greater numbers but also a far greater variety of backgrounds, abilities and expectations? (b) Are we confident that the economy can offer suitable employment to a population the overwhelming majority of whom have higher education qualifications? (c) Will this mean the end of apprenticeship systems and the related jobs, or will these be absorbed into a higher education framework?

I am strongly in favour of opening up higher education to an ever larger proportion of the population, but this cannot be done just by increasing numbers (without considering the financing of the increase). What we are looking at here is potentially a fundamentally different higher education system; we need to ask some very searching questions about this.

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5 Comments on “The numbers game”

  1. Vincent Says:

    I, also am strongly in favour of wider participation for I believe that all will need retraining twice or three times over their working lives. However I do not believe that there is a ideological or even a utilitarian willingness to finance this in any form from general taxation. If anything the truth sits at the complete counter to this position and will continue to sit there.
    Therefore I believe the only realistic way forward is for the entire system to declare independence and separate itself in its entirety from the exchequer. You are technically in this position at the moment, but none believes this fiction as the reality is you are more controlled than the secondary schools.
    And to pay for this, the Harvard system is as good as any. Where the wealthy and kids of alumni pay via the nose.
    Basically what I’m saying is there is little point in expecting 30 to 40 year vision from an animal that has a lifespan of at most 5 years, regardless which of them is in the driving seat. You are on about six to eight lifetimes after all.
    And as to the idea on the student loans, this is just stupid. All will be done is mark the population with a debt designed as a form of serfdom.

  2. John Says:


    In a parallel universe where Batt didn’t bluff and where green was just the colour of grass, wouldn’t the re-introduction of undergraduate fees allow u/g teaching to become self-financing — irrespective of rising numbers?

    Additionally assuming that
    1) fees were uncapped at average cost
    2) statutory remissions to fees were reimbursed by govt
    3) students had access to deferred payment loans from an educational loans authority*.

    * A fine opportunity to recycle a few hungry Roddys onto another state bored [sic].

    I’ll get back to teaching methods, aptitude and Say’s Law in a follow-up post!

  3. belfield Says:

    (a) No; but ICT can fix that (b) No; but ICT can fix that (c) Yes; but ICT can fix that.
    Just ask Paul Rellis and his ‘Smart Economy’ people – they have all the answers a Minister could ever need about second level schooling. And all this without even knowing much what a school looks like… []

    Just scale things up a bit and their panglossian grasp can probably sort out universities ‘schooling’ too… 🙂

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