The Irish government have pledged €2.2 billion in capital expenditure to the higher education sector within the next decade, following the approval of the government’s Project 2040 by cabinet today.
The infrastructure project is comprised of two distinct plans – the National Planning Framework, and the National Development Plan, which together form Project 2040. More than €116 billion will be spent on infrastructure projects over the next 22 years, the plan states.
Of the €2 .2 billion promised for expanding institutes of technology and part-funding developments in the university sector, €1.7 billion of this has already been confirmed by the government for the program’s execution. Investment will focus on refurbishment, maintenance and equipment upgrades.
Expansion plans by the State’s seven universities, which are being funded mostly by private finance and borrowing from the European Investment Bank, will also be supported by the project. Many of these projects have been previously announced athough some have yet to receive official sanction.
In Trinity, these plans include the Trinity Business School, the Engineering, Energy and Environment (E3) Institute , student accommodation and the expansion of the Trinity Technology and Enterprise Campus, which are currently being planned or constructed.
According to Minister of State for Higher Education Mary Mitchell O’Connor, the plan intends to “build the capacity of multi-campus technological universities and Institutes of Technology to deepen the talent pool for these regions and also to drive research and innovation”. The investment is intended to “transform sector infrastructure”. It was also noted that “Technological Universities will be the key to regional development,” following the approval of multiple technological universities this year.
The decision, if recognised in future state budgets, will fund upgrades to many outdated university facilities, and also create more buildings to cater for incoming students. It is expected that the number of third level students in Ireland will have increased by 40,000 by 2030. The project expects the level of higher education enrollments to peak in 2025.
The plan seeks to refurbish, maintain and support the renewal of equipment across the system. This follows a Higher Education Authority (HEA) report which found that 41% of the total space in higher education institutions require major repair, with 18% of space being over 50 years old.
The project was welcomed by the Irish Universities Association (IUA), who recognised it as a significant milestone for the sector following almost a decade of under-investment in the building facilities programme during the recession.
Director General of IUA Jim Miley stated:“The government has laid down an ambition, which we share, for the Irish higher education system to be the ‘best in Europe’ by 2026. The capital expenditure programme is one of the key ingredients required to deliver on that goal. However, we cannot realistically achieve such an ambition unless it is matched by a robust investment plan to develop the human capital.”
He went on to say: “Universities are the gateway to jobs and innovation in the Irish economy. We look forward to an early decision by government to match the capital investment programme with an overhaul of the operational funding model for higher education which is long overdue.”
The IUA stated that “relying on philanthropy or commercial loan funding from banks such as the European Investment Bank is not sustainable”.
The plan addresses concerns expressed in the HEA First performance report, conducted from 2014 until 2016, which stated: “The HEA would warn that the current condition and extent of facilities and the absence of provision for new space, constitute a risk to the capacity of the system to deliver the very significant increase in new places that is required to meet growing demand.”
The Cassells report on the future funding of higher education also noted a “significant problem in the maintenance and upgrading of facilities” in recent years. “Enhanced recurrent funding will allow universities and institutes of technology to meet some of the costs of day-to-day maintenance, minor works and equipment renewal from core budgets,” it said.
Infrastructure relating to education comprises only part of the plan. The infrastructure project intends to create growth, with growth targets of 50% set for the Cork, Limerick, Galway and Waterford cities. 75% of all growth is planned for outside Dublin. Minister of State for Rural Development Michael Ring stated that the project will be “for both rural and urban Ireland”.