Coalition's hands tied over fees, Gilmore indicates


THE GOVERNMENT has no choice but to increase student contributions under the terms of the deal with the EU-IMF-ECB troika, Tánaiste Eamon Gilmore has signalled.

He told the Dáil the deal signed by the previous government included a commitment towards “ensuring a greater contribution towards tertiary education”.

Mr Gilmore refused to be drawn on whether the Government would reverse the €500 increase in student service charges, as promised by the Labour Party before the general election, or introduce fees.

Minister for Education Ruairí Quinn told the Dáil he is examining a Higher Education Authority report on funding for higher education and will discuss it with Government colleagues “as part of our budgetary deliberations”.

He also declined to be drawn on his pre-election pledge to reverse the increase in student registration fees.

The Higher Education Authority report underlines the gravity of the financial crisis in third level. It concludes that a cap on student numbers may be necessary as the higher education sector attempts to accommodate a projected 30 per cent increase in student numbers.

The report, which is now being examined by senior Department of Education officials, argues that the underfunded third-level sector is reaching a tipping point. It appears to pave the way for increased student charges.

The report also warns that the overall quality of higher education in Ireland is set to deteriorate sharply unless the funding crisis is addressed.

In the Dáil yesterday, Fianna Fáil spokesman on education Brendan Smith called on the Tánaiste to “deny that the Government would consider putting a cap on student numbers in 2012”.

Mr Quinn said: “I don’t know how many times this has to be conveyed to the Fianna Fáil party. This country has lost its economic sovereignty. It was signed away 12 month ago by the Government of which you were a member.

“We don’t control either our cheque book or our policy in relation to a whole range of items of public expenditure, and we have to work within that constraint. Don’t really come in and ask questions the answer to which you know.”

Speaking in the Dáil in advance of the student protest outside Leinster House, Fianna Fáil leader Micheál Martin accused the Government of “cheating students” on the issue.

He said the Minister for Education “brazenly” went up to Trinity College four days before the last general and signed the USI pledge. “So did you, Tánaiste,” he said.

When Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams raised the issue and asked why the Government would not honour its pledges on fees, Mr Gilmore pointed to college registration fees in the North which were €3,837.

“Why is it OK to charge €3,837 in Belfast but not okay to charge about half in the Republic?” he asked.