The renewed National Development Plan (NDP) recognises further and higher education providers as “anchors for enterprise and regional growth” in a commitment to spend €2.9 billion on the sector between 2021-2025. Overall investment in the sector is expected to increase from €500m to €652m per year by 2025. Unveiled on 4th October, the NDP commits to spending €165 billion over the next nine years in a plan that has been described as “unprecedented in scale” by Taoiseach Micháel Martin. 

Minister Niall Collins has characterised the sector’s increased funding as “investments in our people, and in the skills and talent that will enable Ireland to flourish as an economy and society”. The NDP highlights the importance of this generation of students for “Ireland’s future prosperity and resilience”, welcome recognition for those who have struggled through the challenges of learning in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic. 

There is now a commitment to expand infrastructure in the sector to cater to the increasing number of students entering higher education. Full-time enrolments have grown over 33% between 2007-2017 and this number is expected to grow in the coming years. Investment in infrastructure, including the development of technological universities, should ease concerns of future Leaving Cert students following the difficulties faced by this year’s graduates in securing a place in their desired courses this academic year. 

The 180-page document also notes the “importance of the physical campus to the student experience”, whilst acknowledging the potential for online or blended learning for future generations of students. It notes that the investment for campus infrastructure will be adaptable and support “evolving best practice in teaching and learning.”

The document states the further and higher education and research system will be “critical to the delivery of Ireland’s climate ambitions.” Investment will be made in campus buildings with relation to the 2030 climate targets, namely improvements in energy efficiency and decarbonisation. 

Emphasis is also placed on skills development in an ever-changing working environment. Funding “will seek to ensure that the right infrastructure and equipment are in place to match skills development with the needs of our economy and of society, across the regions and nationally”, recognising the importance of an agile approach to reskilling and upskilling.

Outside of government funding, the Plan also highlights the importance of non-exchequer finance to the higher education sector, expecting €2 billion raised through philanthropy and borrowing. 

The Irish Universities Association believes the increased funding is “a step in the right direction” yet states that it is still not enough “given the background of under-funding and the continued expansion of numbers.” IUA Chairman, Ciarán Ó hÓgartaigh, has said the Association is eagerly awaiting the funding proposals that will be laid out in Budget 2022 to realise the ambitious aims of the Plan and it is looking forward to engaging with Minister Simon Harris to get clarification on the funding plans for the sector. 

Elsewhere in the document, students will be pleased to see plans for investments into affordable housing. The plan commits to deliver 33,000 new homes each year – 10,000 of which will be social housing and 6000 will be priced at a more affordable rate. This should work towards the retention of the skilled workforce the plan aims to develop over the period.

Alice Wright – Reporter