Offering extra places is not sustainable, universities warn

Association hopes Government plan will dampen potential rise in college points

The State's colleges and universities have offered extra places for students for the third year in a row, but this cannot keep happening, the Irish Universities Association (IUA) has said.

On Tuesday, the Cabinet considered plans to spend €24 million to pay for 4,600 more college places to cope with extra demand this year, but also pent-up demand from last year.

The IUA says it now hopes the additional places will dampen down what otherwise could have been sharp increases in college points this autumn.

However, it said it could not guarantee that points would not increase, saying the hurdles facing this year’s Leaving Certificate classes would not be clear until September’s results.


The IUA's director of learning, teaching and academic affairs, Lewis Purser, said many institutions would face pressure even if all students did not return daily, as Irish staff to student ratios were higher than elsewhere.

Under plans by Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris, 440 of the 4,600 places will be taken up by health sciences, such as nursing, pharmacy and medicine, along with 450 more science places.

There are to be 120 extra places in education-related courses and 102 in law, along with an increase in the number available in media studies, veterinary, and business.

Some of the Government’s funding will go not to the colleges, or universities, but, rather, to pay for additional spaces for medical students to carry out necessary placements in hospitals.

However, the third-level institutions are getting more money for each of the extra places than they are getting for existing numbers, even though the fees will not fully cover the costs.

Last week, The Irish Times reported that points for medicine and pharmacy were set to rise because of the number of students who sat the written Leaving Cert last November now taking up places.

Meanwhile, there is mounting pressure because the number of of applications from citizens in other EU states who no longer want to study in the United Kingdom has doubled.

More than 3,300 of the extra places offered by the Government will seek to absorb the 8.6 per cent growth in the numbers who applied to the Central Applications Office in 2021.

More than 1,300 places are being funded under the Human Capital Initiative (HCI) which aims to address the skill needs in future growth areas, such as climate.

The ability of major universities to create places in some high-demand areas, given the numbers applying for courses which require clinical placements, is questionable, however, according to some institutions.


Eilis O’Brien, director of communications at University College Dublin, said it admitted 4,474 students in 2020, which was a jump of 323 on the numbers admitted in 2019.

She said UCD could take 4,456 students this year, with funding; 129 places were secure through HCI funding, but the remaining 186 depended on funding secured by Mr Harris.

“While these numbers are across STEM and social sciences, business, arts, etc, they do not include any medicine places, which has seen a 20 per cent increase in interest this year,” said Ms O’Brien.

UCD had made plans to accommodate 2020 Leaving Certificate students who have been offered deferred places, but it could not “provide any more clinical places for school leavers this year”.

However, she said the Dublin university “may be able to provide a number of extra places in veterinary medicine if the appropriate level of funding materialises”.

Celeste Golden, admission officer at the Royal College of Surgeons in Ireland, said it had additional places for pharmacy only and had no additional clinical placements available for physiotherapy or medicine.

Martin Wall

Martin Wall

Martin Wall is the former Washington Correspondent of The Irish Times. He was previously industry correspondent