Exclusion of part-time students from free fees scheme challenged

As CAO offers come out, RIA says it’s unfair 20,000 students aren’t eligible for grants

New figures  show there is a drop of 2 per cent in the number of mature applicants (those over 23) through the CAO. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

New figures show there is a drop of 2 per cent in the number of mature applicants (those over 23) through the CAO. Photograph: Eric Luke/The Irish Times

 

A new tax relief should be introduced for part-time students as an equity measure and to help reverse the fall in postgraduate enrolments in higher education, the Royal Irish Academy (RIA) has said.

The organisation, which promotes research and academic excellence in Ireland, said the exclusion of part-time students from the “free fees” scheme was preventing people from nontraditional and under-represented backgrounds accessing third-level.

RIA president Professor Mary Daly said “imposing fees on part-time undergraduate students can further deny those from disadvantaged backgrounds a route to higher education”.

“Why should one group be so disadvantaged? How can it make sense that a bank official working full-time on €25,000 a year is being charged fees to study in the evenings, while the child of the bank’s CEO is entitled to the free fees scheme to study during the day?”

The Higher Education Authority has reported a drop of 9 per cent in the number of students enrolling for PhD and other doctoral programmes in the past five years.

Figures published today show there is a drop of 2 per cent in the number of mature applicants (those over 23) through the CAO this year.

Commitments

The RIA has published an advice paper on access to third-level, arguing that for many who are forced to leave school at an early age, their only option is to enrol as part-time students in order to balance work, family and financial commitments.

It says more than 20,000 undergraduate part-time students – who are not eligible for maintenance grants or other student supports – pay more than €40 million in fees annually.

At the same time, 160,000 full-time students are supported by the Government’s free fees scheme and are eligible for student supports.

As a step towards making the system fairer, the academy says tax relief on postgraduate study should be extended to 100 per cent of the cost of fees.

At present, part-time postgraduate students can only claim tax relief for the amount of fees above €1,500 and at the standard rate of 20 per cent and up to a maximum of €7,000. So the cost for a PAYE worker who enrols for a part-time postgraduate degree course costing €10,000 is €8,900 per annum.

Under the academy proposal, the cost would fall to €8,000 per annum.

The academy says previous calls have been made for part-time and full-time students to be treated on a similar basis by organisations ranging from the OECD and Ibec to the Union of Students in Ireland and adult learning organisation Aontas.

New funding model

Financial pressure on postgraduate students has intensified in recent years, with the Government withdrawing access to maintenance payments under the student grant scheme in Budget 2012. Fees in many programmes have also risen.

An expert group chaired by Peter Cassells is due to report later this year on a new funding model for higher education, with recommendations expected not just on part-time students but the overall sustainability of the sector.

Commenting on the CAO offers published today, UCD deputy president Prof Mark Rogers highlighted the added strain on services posed by the growth in student numbers.

“In international terms, Ireland is underfunding our universities and this is not sustainable if we are to continue to offer the quality of experience our students deserve and expect,” he said.

“Education is now a global market where students have increasing choices to study abroad. Students who leave for their undergraduate degree may be less likely to return to Ireland so if we cannot provide the best education for them, we will lose this talent for many years.

“We see the impact our young graduates are making in the economic recovery and don’t wish to lose them.”