Q&A: What’s the student protest about?

Issues surrounding the funding of higher education explained . . .

For most of the last decade, State funding for higher education has been dropping

For most of the last decade, State funding for higher education has been dropping


Q.What’s today’s student protest about?

In essence it’s about the need to invest in our cash-strapped third level education system - but it’s also a warning shot by students ahead of the budget to say a loan scheme is not the answer.

Q. Is the sector really underfunded?

For most of the last decade, State funding for higher education has been dropping, while student numbers have been rising.

The effect, say those in third level, has been rising class sizes, reduced access to tutorials, outdated computers and creaking infrastructure. The situation is most acute in our institutes of technology, with most either in the red or on the cusp of financial difficulty. Universities, however, have managed to plug funding gaps through generating private income and borrowing.

The Government says last year’s additional funding for the sector was the first increase in nine years. Critics, however, say in real terms it did not increase funding per individual student.

Q. What options are on the table for funding higher education?

Last year an expert group on the future of higher education funding - the Cassells report - studied approaches used in other countries such as  Norway, The Netherlands, Australia, England and the United States and identified three main funding options for the Irish system.

1. Free, State-funded system: under this option, the State would significantly increase its core grant to institutions, the €3,000 undergraduate student contribution fee would be abolished and student income supports would be enhanced.

Higher education would be free at the point of entry for all first-time EU students and for part-time learners, and potentially postgraduate students.

The State’s contribution would increase hugely from the current levels - 64 per cent of all third level funding - to about 80 per cent. This would most likely require an increase in taxes to pay for this.

2. Increased State funding with retention of student contribution: this would see a considerable increase in State funding with retention of the current upfront student contribution: €3,000 per year for undergraduates and continuing fees for postgraduates.

As in the other options, part-time students would be funded in the same manner as full time students and income supports would be enhanced.

The State’s contribution would increase from the current level of 64 per cent of all higher education funding to 72 per cent.

3. Student loan scheme, along with increased State-funding: this would involve the abolition of existing upfront fees for both undergraduates and postgraduates, and their replacement with a system of income contingent loans provided by the State.

Higher education would be free at the point of entry for all students. Student income supports would be enhanced and increased. Repayment of loans would only commence once a graduate’s earning reaches a threshold level and would be at a defined percentage of annual income, collected through the revenue system.

In the expert group report, it suggests that tuition costs could be between €4,000 and €5,000 annually. This would mean graduates would receive loans of between €16,000 and €20,000. This is much less than student loan schemes in the UK or US, where the size of debt is typically a multiple of this figure.

Q. If a student loan scheme was introduced, when would student begin repaying their loans?

The report suggests that graduates could begin to repay the fees when their income reaches €26,000.

Those whose earnings do not reach the threshold would make no repayments. Increased State funding will still be required, and any increases in fee levels must not be offset by reductions in state funding.

The State’s contribution to overall higher education funding would fall from 64 per cent to about 55 to 60 per cent.

Q. How real is the prospect of a student loan scheme?

Not very likely - at least for now. The Cassells report’s findings are being examined by the Oireachtas education committee. 

Minister for Education Richard Bruton has said he will only follow through on a recommendation if there is a “political consensus” on the matter, and there's no sign of much support for a loans scheme.

Fianna Fáil - whose support is crucial to anything happening - is not convinced about the merits of student loans. Most of the major parties  - apart from Fine Gael - are deeply opposed to any kind of student loan scheme. Last week, Taoiseach Leo Varadkar said he was opposed to a UK or US-style loan scheme which are leaving students with major debts, but left the door open to the kind of loan system envisaged in the Cassells report.