Coalition tensions over college fees

 

Tensions between the Government parties are set to rise over a proposal, backed by Fianna Fáil, whereby third-level students would face college fees of up to €3,000 per year from next September.

Under the proposal, which is being considered in the budget discussions, a new student contribution fee of up to €1,500 would be levied on all undergraduate students. It is thought that this could yield an additional €80 million.

This would be in addition to the €1,500 student registration charge that they already pay. Both new entrants and those already in college would be liable for the new fee. A fee of €500 for post-Leaving Cert courses is also said to be under consideration.

The renewed programme for government which the coalition parties agreed in October 2009 states: “This Government will not proceed with any new scheme of student contribution to third-level education.”

The Green Party leadership refused to give an official response last night on its attitude to the proposed new charge.

A senior party source, speaking on condition of anonymity, said that, although it was accepted education could not be immune from economy measures, “the Renewed Programme for Government commitments cannot be cast aside”.

Green Party education spokesman Paul Gogarty said: “Our education expenditure as a whole has to be reduced but the renewed programme for government protected certain key areas.

“The membership voted for that document, in the face of concerns about the National Asset Management Agency, on the basis of educational commitments.

“For the Green Party to reverse those commitments would be unthinkable. There would be open revolt of members – it’s a crunch issue,” he said.

It was Mr Gogarty’s understanding that the registration fee would be replaced, rather than supplemented by a charge similar to the student contribution fee.

“We have conceded that the new student charge that’s coming in is going to be higher than the registration fee it replaces, but the question is, how much higher? If it is too high, then it’s basically fees by the back door.

“That’s non-negotiable as far as I am concerned,” Mr Gogarty said.

Fianna Fáil sources insist Green opposition to fees has “softened significantly’’ in recent weeks as the scale of the required €15 billion budget adjustment has become clearer.

Education sources say the new contribution fee is needed because a further rise in the student registration or service charge is not credible.

University heads have acknowledged the student registration charge was being used to fund core services such as libraries, because of the cuts in funding.

This morning president of NUI Galway Jim Brown said any increase should be accompanied by a system to support those who are unable to pay.

“I’ve no illusions about the fact that if the registration fee is increased it will be used to part compensate for cuts. I don’t see this as extra income I see it as trying to compensate for reduced state income in the context of a 10 per cent increase in student numbers over the past two years.”

He told RTÉ’s Morning Ireland that the smart economy needs more graduates and this “cannot be done without private funding . . . the state simply cannot afford it.”

USI president Gary Redmond said that the burden is being “transferred from the exchequer onto the student”.

He told the same programme the new fees would hit parents as the traditional source of income for students, part-time jobs, are no longer available.

And he added that the Government would not introduce a loan system because the State cannot afford one.

Under the new proposals, students exempt from the current student service charge will also be exempt from the new student contribution fees. But the levy could still yield up to €80 million in new funding.

Government sources are also signalling other cuts in education spending. Education sources say increased class size is “back on the agenda” in the budget discussions – even though this was also vetoed by the Greens in the renewed programme for government.

A significant cut in the number of special needs assistants – currently 10,000 – is also under consideration.

A Fianna Fáil source said: “The Greens have to get real. They can’t just veto every proposed education cutback.”

Green sources said the party had taken the view that a figure of €2,000 for a renamed registration fee would be an acceptable figure.

The proposed new student contribution fee will gain fresh impetus later this month when the Hunt report detailing a new national strategy for higher education is published.

The report of the expert group, chaired by economist Dr Colin Hunt, backs the return of third-level fees. It is due to go to Cabinet in 10 days and will be published two weeks later, shortly before the budget.