Decision on third-level funding decision unlikely before summer end

Date Uploaded: 11/04/2017

A decision on which funding model to recommend for third-level education is unlikely to issue, from an all-party committee of TDs and senators, until late summer at the earliest.

Education Minister Richard Bruton has indicated he hopes to bring plans to Government ahead of October’s budget on how to bridge a €600m funding gap in the higher education system.

But he wants political consensus first and is awaiting the outcome of deliberations by the Oireachtas Education Committee on a range of options put forward by last year’s Cassells report, including the controversial possibility of increased student fees backed by loans.

After holding a number of hearings with interested groups in November and December, the committee is still reviewing the issues raised with them. However, chairperson and Fianna Fáil TD Fiona O’Loughlin said it is hoped to reconvene public hearings on the issue early next month.

Following a private meeting of the committee last week, she said members are aware of the important decision faced by Mr Bruton and their role in it. But it will not be making recommendations until detailed deliberations have concluded.

“Our work, currently, is focused on reviewing evidence given at our public hearings, examining the merits of each option available and looking at what path best fits the needs of those on all sides of education provision,” Ms O’Loughlin said.

The one option not being considered by the committee is to maintain the current arrangements, under which the bulk of costs are met by the taxpayer and students who do not qualify for grants paying a €3,000 annual fee for undergraduate courses. The expert group chaired by Peter Cassells said retaining this and current levels of government funding would see the shortfall of what is required to maintain quality education reach €600m by 2021 and €1bn by 2030.

The main options are to see a much more significant increase in public funding or to match more modest exchequer increases with an increase in contributions by employers through the National Training Fund, along with an income-contingent student loan. This would see fees rise but students given the option to borrow the costs and to begin repaying them only when they reach certain income levels.

The arguments against such a scheme by the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) and trade unions represented in third-level were bolstered by new research last week at a conference organised by the institute of technology sector.

Trinity College Dublin economist Charles Larkin said financing the loan system would run up losses of at least €10bn over the first 12 years or more before being stabilised by cash flows from repayments.

He suggested, as an alternative, the introduction of a USC-type education levy which he said could raise €4bn.


Journalist: Niall Murray

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