Higher education deficit must be tackled, warns expert group chair
Opposition rules out student loan scheme, meaning registration fees likely to remain
Minister for Education Richard Bruton (left) and Peter Cassells, chairman of the Expert Group on Future funding for Higher Education at DIT on Monday. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times
The funding system for higher education is not sustainable and will lead to a sharp decline in the quality of graduates unless tackled soon, the chair of a Government-commissioned expert group has warned.
Peter Cassells, who chaired the review, said “muddling through” was not an option and would “condemn our future children to a system which is deteriorating.”
The sector is likely to need an extra €100 million a year over the next decade or more simple to cope with population growth which will see student numbers at third level climb by almost a third.
The expert group report report, Investing in National Ambition, proposes three main options for the Irish system: “free” education which is entirely funded by the State; maintaining the current €3,000 student charge, along with increased State funding; or a student loan scheme.
While he said each option had positive and negatives, Mr Cassells called on decision-makers to act swiftly in coming to a decision.
“I would have a fear that we would try to muddle through, and this is probably the worst of all the situations which would happen,” he said.
“As a country, we’re probably at the bottom of the premiership... and we could very quickly end up in the first division.”
He declined to be drawn on which option he personally favoured on the basis that it would not be helpful in securing such all-party agreement.
“The proposals are challenging - none of the options set out here is easy. But the report challenges us to have a debate over how to fund the ambitions that we have,”Mr Bruton said.
An agreement is unlikely ahead of the next Budget, he said, but will seek additional funding in the meantime for the higher education sector .
Any extra funds will be accompanied by new performance-based funding mechanisms along with new targets for improved outcomes for the users and funding of the service, he said.
Mr Bruton wants 50,000 “upskilling and reskilling places” over the next five years to fill skills gaps in the economy and to support an increase in lifelong learning.
He also wants an increase in third-level students from the most disadvantaged communities, along with an increase in the numbers of entrants studying online and part-time.
These target, he said, would give confidence to the taxpayer that money is being used in a “purposeful way”.
Political parties broadly welcomed the Cassells report, but almost all moved quickly to rule out a loan scheme.
Fianna Fáil’s education spokesman Thomas Byrne said he would oppose any increase in student fees and that much greater exchequer support was required.
He said the public cost of an income contingent student loan scheme were “extremely uncertain” and would ultimately outweigh any short term savings made by the State.
Sinn Féin, which has previously ruled out student loans, said it would “not support an increase in the burden on ordinary families and students to meet the costs of third level education”, while the Anti-Austerity Alliance said “free fees” was the only option it would support.
Labour’s education spokeswoman Joan Burton also dismissed the idea of a loan scheme.
“It would do nothing to attract more young people into third level, and all evidence shows that a loan scheme like this would impact low and middle income families disproportionately, while having virtually no impact on participation rates among the better off,” she said.