Controversial proposals for a student loan scheme to fund third-level education are being referred by the Government to the European Commission for detailed economic analysis.
The move is set to push back any decision on a future funding model for higher education by at least a year.
It is almost three years since a report by an expert group chaired by Peter Cassells on the future funding of higher education was published. It recommended urgent changes to ensure the system was "fit for purpose".
Among the options it proposed were an income-contingent loan system; a “free fees” system for all students; or retaining the existing €3,000 student registration fee with extra public investment.
The Department of Education has applied to the European Commission’s structural reform support programme to carry out analysis of the three policy options. This programme provides tailor-made support to all EU countries for their institutional, administrative and growth-enhancing reforms.
A spokeswoman for Minister of State for higher education Mary Mitchell O’Connor said the analysis would provide the type of international expertise, analysis, and objectivity that would be beneficial to a “major evaluation of this nature”.
This, she added, would include an analysis of the most appropriate mix of apprenticeship programmes, upskilling programmes for those in work, and how this will impact on demand and funding models.
The Government has avoided stating any preference for options outlined in the Cassells report, and instead has asked for the Oireachtas Education Committee to build a consensus on a future funding option.
Taoiseach Leo Varadkar has previously ruled out a UK- or US-style loans scheme which could saddle graduates with large amounts of debt, but has left the door open to Australian or Dutch-style loan schemes which involve much smaller loans.
Under such a system college would be free at the point of access and graduates would repay their fees when their incomes reach a set threshold.
The Oireachtas Education Committee has noted that for a “second straight year” it has not yet been equipped with an economic analysis to consider the Cassells report.
Committee members have expressed their frustration that they were unable to make any progress on this matter last year .
The committee says it wrote to the Department of Education in January 2018 seeking its assessment of the potential costs involved in making any of the Cassells recommendations a reality.
“The committee had wanted to make progress on Peter Cassells’ recommendations in 2018, but we are unable to progress this work until the department provides its economic evaluation of the three options detailed within the expert group’s report,” said committee chair Fiona O’Loughlin TD.
“It is necessary for the committee to relist this goal in our work programme for 2019 given our now 13-month-old request for necessary information from the department.
"We want to drive forward the discussion on reforming how third-level costs are funded in Ireland, and require the department's timely assistance to make this possible."