Is Ireland heading for a higher education bubble?

One of the issues I've heard discussed a lot recently in the Irish media is the issue of Irish students' record-breaking enrollment in higher education courses, and the possibility that this constitutes a bubble in the making. We all know what happened the Irish property market, but could Ireland's third level sector also be facing an implosion from over-enrollment and under-funding?

Apparently some think so. Whether referred to as the 'higher education bubble', the third level 'funding crisis', or some other way of denoting imminent financial meltdown at Ireland's universities and institutes of technology, there seems to be a rising crescendo of voices in the Irish media and academia claiming that Ireland's third level sector can't be sustained if current enrollment figures and minimal funding continue.

A large part of the reason for the rapid increase in student third level enrollments has to do with the rise of the 'weather-it-out' students, clinging steadfastly to a doctrine of recessionary survival which advocates staying in college as long as possible in order to ride out Ireland's currently economic woes. Masters are good, Doctorates are better, this strategy goes, bur either way postgraduate enrollments are on the rise.

It may seem like a somewhat cynical and insincere reason for staying in third level education, but as an idea for delaying the inevitable (- going out into the 'real world' and looking for a job -), this tactic has a lot to commend itself to, but it's undoubtedly also putting a large strain on Ireland's fairly meager economic resources, nowhere more meager, perhaps, than in Ireland's third level sector, where minimal tuition fees and low external investment together create an environment that's bound to struggle under the weight of huge student numbers and dwindling staff levels.

Students weathering out the recession by staying in college is far from the only reason for the very buoyant third level attendance figures, of course. Ireland's rise and and establishment as a knowledge-based economy means that third level education will continue to be a necessity for many, if not most, jobs but the combination of the various factors pushing college numbers up could together place more of a strain on the system than its thin resources and low student-derived income were ever designed to handle.

Whether Ireland's third level sector will buckle under the strain of student numbers and underfunding as some predict remains to be seen, but it's certainly an issue that will be crucial to Ireland's economic future over the coming years.


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