Political parties rule out student loans to fund third level

Debate hears government gives more State funding to ‘horses than students’

All major political parties have ruled out a student loan scheme as a way of funding higher education over the coming years.

The comments were made at a debate on the future of higher education involving the spokespeople for the main political parties at Trinity College Dublin on Tuesday moderated by Newstalk's Shane Coleman.

Minister of State for higher education and Fine Gael TD Mary Mitchell O'Connor said student registration charges - currently €3,000 a year - will be frozen and additional public funding will be invested in the sector if her party is returned to government.

When pressed on whether the sector was underfunded, she conceded that the sector still requires “extra funding”, and this would be drawn from the exchequer and a levy on employers, known as the National Training Fund.

Fianna Fáil's education spokesman Thomas Byrne TD also pledged free registration charges and promised to invest an additional €100 million in funding for the sector.

In addition, he said Fianna Fáil would establish a new department of higher education and research in order to give more focus and dedication at a political level.

Richard Boyd Barrett TD of People Before Profit said he supported a fully publicly-funded system of higher education which is free for all.

Instead, he said, governments have made college less affordable by “slashing funding, cutting grants and increasing registration fees”.

“State grants aid for horses? €6,915 per year. State grant aid per student? €4,396 per year. That’s how seriously successive governments take you as students and higher education,” he said.

Sinn Féin’s Donnchadh Ó Laoghaire TD also ruled out a loan scheme and said the last four years have been “time lost” for higher education.

He said the party supported a fully publicly-funded higher education system along with additional investment in grants to make going to college more affordable.

Abolish registration fee

Labour Senator Ivana Bacik said her party's preference is for a fully publicly-funded higher education system and for the €3,000 student registration charge to be abolished.

She said she felt this could be implemented over the lifetime of the next government, and pointed to Labour’s move to abolish third level fees in 1996 as a sign that it was possible with “political will”.

Ms Bacik also warned that the current approach to providing targeted additional funding in selected programmes or skills areas could lead to the “destruction of arts and humanities by stealth” and pledged to end this policy.

Cllr Nessa Hourigan of the Green Party said a key priority would be boosting access to higher education for under-represented groups as well as improving terms and conditions for third level staff on precarious contracts.

The Social Democrats, according to party representative Aengus Ó Maoláin, warned that the current approach to third level funding was a “recipe for disaster” and also supported a public-funded system.

In the meantime, he said the party would support a cut in the student registration charge and making college more affordable for all.

At the beginning of the debate, Trinity provost Patrick Prendergast has warned that under-funding of the sector was a "time-bomb" that needed to be addressed.

“We are sitting on a time bomb . . . The country depends on cutting edge research. Our universities are being overtaken in the global ranking by institutions around the world with better public funding,” he said.

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien

Carl O'Brien is Education Editor of The Irish Times. He was previously chief reporter and social affairs correspondent