Plan to reduce €3,000 charge for third-level education to be considered by Cabinet

Opposition likely from fiscal conservatives in wake of spending costs incurred in pandemic

A proposal to reduce the €3,000 student contribution charge for third-level education is expected to be brought to Cabinet in February, but there is strong opposition in parts of the Government to any plan which would lean heavily on the exchequer for extra support for the sector.

The level of a reduction, if any, would not be agreed until the budget, it is understood.

Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris has previously indicated his desire to reduce third-level fees and reiterated his intention in a recent Fine Gael newsletter.

“We believe the contribution fee is too high and prevents many people from accessing higher education,” Mr Harris wrote. “We want to change that.”

Talks continue

Discussions are ongoing between officials in the Department of Higher Education and the Department of Public Expenditure, while the two Ministers, Mr Harris and Michael McGrath, have also met.

But there is strong opposition in both the Department of Public Expenditure and the Department of Finance to reductions in fees at a time when expenditure on higher education is rising.

One source expressed “surprise” at the “certainty with which Minister Harris is predicting a cut in fees over and above funding for the third-level sector in general”.

If a decision is made by the Government in principle to reduce the student contribution charge, it is expected that the amount involved would not become clear until the budget in October. However, it is believed that a cut by as much as €1,000 could be sought.

Middle-class backing

Some elements of the Coalition favour such a substantial reduction in the charge not just as a play to win over young people, who are flocking to support Sinn Féin, polls suggest. They also expect that the move would be popular with middle-class families who believe they “pay for everything”, in the words of one Government source.

But there will be strong resistance from fiscal conservatives in the Government, especially in the Departments of Finance and Public Expenditure, who want to see public spending put on a more sustainable footing after the huge increases in spending, funded largely by borrowing, which took place during the pandemic.