Cuts to the cost of going to college in this year’s Budget are “just the start” and charges will continue to drop over the coming years, Minister for Further and Higher Education Simon Harris has pledged.
He said last week’s Budget announcement of a €1,000 cut to the €3,000 student registration and improvements in grants have set a very “clear direction of travel” in future budgets which needs to be built upon.
“If we value education as a public good, we need to reduce the student registration fee. Wise people did not sit in a room and in a logical way decide that it should cost €3,000 because that’s a perfect figure,” he said. “This was done at a time of austerity. It needs to come down,” Mr Harris said.
“This is just the start — it’s not the end of the journey, far from it. It is a very clear direction of travel in terms of wanting to bring more students into the student support scheme and wanting to reduce costs. This is about students supports being on the way up and the cost of education being on the way down.”
Mr Harris was speaking at a symposium on educational disadvantage at the Royal Irish Academy on Thursday.
The symposium, organised by Prof Judith Harford of UCD and Prof Áine Hyland of UCC, also featured contributions from international academics, the ESRI and school principals in disadvantaged — or Deis — schools.
The Minister said investment in early years education, the Deis scheme and access routes for underrepresented groups are key to tackling educational disadvantage.
He said there has been “huge progress” in third level participation in the past 50 years, with numbers attending higher education climbing from 20,000 years ago to 200,000 today.
“We rightly boast about our education system, but we can’t allow that national pride cloud another reality: that progress has not been equal. There are still people left behind and locked out,” Mr Harris said.
At present about 42 per cent of school leavers from disadvantaged areas progress to higher education, well below the average rate of 66 per cent nationally and 90 per cent in affluent areas.
A new national access plan for 2022-2028, which provides bursaries and student supports, aims to increase third-level participation among students from poorer families as well as Travellers, intellectually disabled, care leavers and those with experiences of homelessness or domestic violence.
Prof Aine Hyland told the symposium that while educational inequality continues to be a challenge in this country, there have been significant improvements in access, participation and achievement at all levels of education in the past 60 years.
At that time, young people from professional families were 20 times more likely to attend higher education than those whose parents were semi-skilled or unskilled workers.
By the year 2000, the gap had narrowed to a ratio of 2:1 with those from higher professional families twice as likely to access higher education as those from the lowest socio-economic groups.
“Today, almost 95 per cent of young people complete senior cycle and more than two-thirds graduate with a third level qualification.” she said.
She said policymakers face key questions such as how to address shortcomings in Deis supports for schools in disadvantaged areas, as well as vulnerable pupils in non-Deis schemes.