The proportion of students from disadvantaged backgrounds or with disabilities attending higher education in Ireland continues to improve, according to the latest performance review of the sector.

The study, published today, finds that over a recent two-year period, both categories saw their share of total intake rise by 4 percentage points.

The report, by the Higher Education Authority, says while the system continues to respond strongly to the challenge of the country's needs, it is "acutely concerned" however about the potential negative impact of a decline in public funding.

Performance reports such as this have been published annually over the past few years. Produced by the HEA, they evaluate the sector according to a number of objectives.

This latest study relates to the academic year of 2014/15 and finds that equity of access continues to improve.

The share of students from deprived backgrounds entering college rose from 22% to 26% between 2013 and 2015, while the proportion of students with disabilities increased from 7% to 11%.

On teaching and learning, the study finds continued high levels of student satisfaction despite, it says, the ongoing deterioration of the student-staff ratio, with staff numbers declining while student numbers climb.

On research, it notes that while Irish institutions continue to perform well, the level of investment in higher education research and development shows a continuous decline.

The report finds that while the number of international students coming to Ireland is increasing, it remains below the OECD average and considerably below high performers such as Australia, the US, the UK, and New Zealand.

However the report also warns of risks associated with internationalisation, including what it calls an excessive focus on it as a strategy for generating revenue.

International students pay fees that are far higher than those paid by their EU counterparts. 

The HEA says that while the higher education system here continues to perform strongly against a number of objectives, it warns of increased risks around the sustainability of this performance, due to the decline in public funding.

It says maintaining a high quality student experience, and a high quality of graduate is at risk; at risk too, efforts to broaden access among under-represented groups.

The report warns that research performance, and the quality of capital stock in the sector, are also at risk. 

Minister for Education Richard Bruton said the results of the review are a "testament to the quality of our third-level institutions and their staff, who have maintained their high standards of performance and innovation, despite increased student numbers and falling resources."

Professor warns over investment

The President of Maynooth said the increase in students from disadvantaged backgrounds and disabilities attending higher education is the result of investments made over the past 20 years.

Professor Philip Nolan said that significant efforts have been made to include everyone in Irish society in higher education.

Speaking on RTÉ's Morning Ireland, Prof Nolan said: "Higher education has been central to our resilience through the recession and to our recovery from the recession and if we fail to invest our economic growth will be slower, we won't build the society that we want to build. My own view is that we are missing about €400 million per annum."

He added that the cost of this investment should be shared among employers, the taxpayer and students and should include the introduction of a loan system for students.

"Students are currently making a huge contribution, €3,000 per annum, per student - upfront. My view is that they should make somewhat more, not a whole lot more, but the fairest way for that to be recouped is through an income contingent loan system, rather than our current system of our students and/or their families paying a very significant amount upfront. I think they should pay it back after they graduate."

He added that the Government needs to send some strong signals about how much it values university staff and the work that they have done, and also send a signal about pay discussions and pay restoration next year.