The EU Commissioner for Education, Culture, Youth and Sport has told a seminar in Dublin that Brexit may present "a window of opportunity" for Irish universities.

Tibor Navracsic said that continental Europe would be looking for good quality English-speaking universities and Irish universities "may make a breakthrough".

Addressing a meeting organised by the Irish Universities Association, Mr Navracsic said Irish universities may benefit from a pool of students who want to study science and humanities subjects in English.

Outlining a number of initiatives under way to encourage student movement across Europe and innovation, he said joint efforts and resolve to transform European higher education would not work unless the financial support necessary for a high-performance sector was available.

In all European countries higher education was undergoing massive and essential changes, he said, referring to "profound transformation of society in its technological, environmental, demographic, and social dimensions" that had "inevitable and necessary impacts on higher education".

Mr Navracsic said universities were among the most important agents of change in Europe today. He said the EU had a bold vision for promoting cross-border learning mobility and cooperation.

But he warned that less than 4% of students currently participated in the Erasmus student exchange system, whereby students spend a period of their studies abroad.

He said it was not good enough that those students came mostly from the more affluent parts of society.

The seminar is also due to hear from the Director of Governance and Funding at the European Universities Association (IUA), who is expected to tell the meeting that his research has found both Ireland and Serbia are "systems in danger" as a result.

Third-level funding in Ireland as a share of GDP in 2017 stood at just half of what it was in 2012, despite the fact that the number of students in the system has increased by a quarter in the space of ten years.

Thomas Estermann will tell the seminar that while funding to Irish universities has increased over the past year "after almost a decade of cuts, the long-term sustainability of the higher education system in Ireland remains an issue".

He will also say that restrictions that remain on staff recruitment leave Ireland "near the bottom" for the autonomy of its universities to recruit staff.

Mr Esterman will say that Ireland’s GDP growth "suggests possibilities for renewed investment in its universities".

This morning's seminar will also hear of a new European Universities Initiative that seeks to strengthen strategic partnerships across the EU between higher education institutions.

The sector hopes that by 2024 there will be a network of some 20 'European Universities', networks of existing institutions, which will enable students to obtain a degree by combining studies in several EU countries.

Mr Estermann will present figures that place Ireland second from the bottom of EU countries in a table that measures staffing autonomy in the sector, ahead only of Croatia.

Ireland's seven universities are campaigning for more autonomy from State control when it comes to the recruitment and remuneration of staff.

The Director General of the Irish Universities Association, Jim Miley, says the figures show how "out of step" Ireland is, compared to its European neighbours.

The IUA has reiterated calls for the Government to prioritise reform of the funding model for higher education as recommended by the Cassells Report, the Government-appointed expert group.

Three years ago, it recommended a range of options to substantially increase funding in the sector.

The most controversial of three options proposed for consideration was an increase in the financial contribution made by students via the introduction of a deferred payment student loan system.

Speaking about the "European Universities" initiative, Mr Miley said Ireland’s universities were already taking advantage of opportunities for collaboration with European colleagues under the scheme.

Earlier this month, Trinity College Dublin became the first Irish university to join a partnership under the initiative.

The IUA says the programme aims to increase the competitiveness of European institutions by supporting close alliances in education, research and innovation, and by promoting European values and identity.