The declining funding of Ireland’s higher education sector

An analysis of where third level institutions get their funding, and how that has been decreasing over the past decade

Students from IT Sligo attend last October’s March for Education

In a world that sees conservative values dominating, along with the rising sentiment that students should pay for their education, Irish students are, in a sense, lucky, that over 90% of us attend institutions predominantly funded by the state. Unlike students in the UK or US, for example, we are not shouldered with tens of thousands of Euro of debt even before we graduate. However, things are changing: the Cassells report proposes the introduction of student fees, or a student loan system, and  while university attendance has been on the rise, state funding has been on the decline.

Decline in state funding

In 2008, state grants made up 80% of the income of higher education institutes. That has decreased every year since then, and last year, direct state grants made up just 50% of the income. The balance in funding has mainly come from the student contribution charge, which has steadily increased from €825 in 2008 to €3000 in 2016. Overall, this has led to third level colleges receiving €427m from student contributions last year, as opposed to just €91m eight years ago. At the same time, government funding has continued to fall, from €1.397bn in 2008 to €860m last year.

Even taking into account the fact that roughly 50% of the student contribution is paid back by the state to grant holders, the data shows a stark decline in state funding. In 2008, government funding accounted for 78% of the funding for the core activities of third level institutions, while in 2016 it accounted for just 64%, lower than the OECD average of 68%.

This decrease in funding has been accompanied by a sharp increase in the number of students attending third level education. This has led to a sharp decline in income per student, as can be seen. With less money to go around, and less money per individual student, not only have staff-to-student ratios been falling, but staff numbers generally have fallen across the board. While the number of full-time students enrolled in higher education rose by 16.66% from 2008 to 2013, the number of staff employed by the institutions they attended fell by 10%.

Breakdown of income

The most recent breakdown of funding for individual universities is from the 2010/11 academic year. That year saw students directly contribute 21% of university funding through the student contribution charge (i.e., this does not include contribution charges that were paid by the state). Differences can clearly be seen between universities, as more students in Trinity, UCD, and NUIG paid the student contribution than had this charge paid by the state.

Along with UCC, those three institutions received much more state funding than UL, DCU, and NUIM, mostly owing to the smaller number of students attending the latter group. Yet looking at income per student, UL, DCU, NUIM, all had lower in some cases much lower figures than the other universities. NUIM had the lowest income per student at €7,958, compared to the €11,129 of Trinity.

How grant recipients have been affected

Grant recipients have been hit by the rising student contribution charge, as well as the 2008 recession that pushed more families into the income bracket qualifying for the grant. While student numbers have been on the rise every year since 2008, total government grant spending only rose between 2008 and 2010, before declining. Even though the government is spending more money on student grants than in 2008, the amount that individual students receive has decreased.

As well as this, the types of funding students receive from the grant has changed. With the rising student contribution charge, more and more of the grant funding is allocated simply to paying this charge. In 2008, more than three-quarters of government grant funding was spent on maintenance grants, while in 2013 this figure decreased to less than half. Even though the government spent €80,000 more on grant funding in 2013 than in 2008, this didn’t even cover the € 160,000 rise in grant funding that was spent on the student contribution charge. Even though more students are attending third level, less and less money is being spent on the maintenance grants.


Overall, the past number of years have seen decreasing funding for third level education, affecting the ability of colleges to cater to their students, and in some cases the ability of students to attend college due to decreasing grants and rising student contribution charges. With student loans and the introduction of fees on the horizon, the future does not look much brighter.