Quinn's U-turn on college fees

Tue, May 31, 2011, 01:00

HOW MUCH are pre-election promises worth? Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn executed a U-turn on college fees yesterday. In the course of the election campaign, Mr Quinn – then Labour Party spokesman on education – opposed a €500 increase in the student contribution fee. He went further; saying that he would reverse the increase once in office. Less than 100 days later, Mr Quinn is refusing to rule out new student fees and/or additional student charges. In an RTÉ radio interview, he said the pledge he made in February no longer stands.

In mitigation he cites “new facts’’ about the scale of exchequer indebtedness, giving him less room for manoeuvre. He is probably right. The parties in the new Coalition clearly thought they had more room for manoeuvre than they actually have. But, as a well informed education spokesman in opposition, Mr Quinn was fully au fait with the funding crisis facing the higher education system during the election campaign. More than most, he realised the issue of fees would have to be addressed sooner or later. In this context, the commitment which he made to the Union of Students in Ireland (USI) is now stood down.

The salient “new fact’’ is that Mr Quinn is now Minister with responsibility for the third-level sector. The gravity of the financial challenge remains as it was when the Hunt report on the sector was published in January. The report, which charts a 20-year strategy, backed new student fees and a student loan scheme. The current funding model, it said, was “unsustainable”, warning that continuing cuts in State support would damage overall standards. It said annual funding must increase by €500 million a year, from €1.3 billion to €1.8 billion by 2020 if academic quality and the full range of student services were to be maintained. It also said funding should virtually double to €2.25 billion a year by 2030.

Mr Quinn now concedes it is “hard to see’’ how higher education can meet the lofty targets set for it by Government without new revenue streams. He has asked the Higher Education Authority (HEA) to examine the funding crisis ahead of expected Cabinet discussions in the autumn on possible new charges.

In all of this, there is a distinct sense of deja vu. In the past decade, two former education ministers Noel Dempsey and Batt O’Keeffe acknowledged the desperate need for more higher education funding. Both pushed for new charges, only to be thwarted by the Progressive Democrats and the Green Party respectively. As a result, an under-funded third-level system is creaking at the edges with university presidents and the HEA hinting a “cap” on student numbers may be necessary to maintain quality. The state of our higher education is key to all our futures. Yesterday, Mr Quinn told the Royal Irish Academy it will be “the engine for new ideas that will sustain and underpin enterprises for the future’’. The Minister’s challenge is clear; he must put all the pre-election presumptions to one side and build a new sustainable funding model for higher education. He has no choice.