The €3,000 student contribution fee for college students will be reduced over a number of budgets, Minister for Higher Education Simon Harris has pledged.
The announcement forms part of a wider funding package for higher education published on Wednesday which commits to increasing the number of families entitled to student grants.
Mr Harris declined to say by how much the contribution fee will reduce, though well-placed sources say annual cuts in the order of €500 will be considered in the context of forthcoming budgets. Contribution fees will not be abolished entirely, he said.
The plan also prioritises the investment of an additional €307 million for the higher education sector – in addition to the current €2 billion annual spend – over a number of budgets to bring core funding into line with international peers.
Mr Harris said this funding will focus on lowering staff-student ratios, improving the quality of programmes and providing a third-level education system which is accessible to “everyone in society”.
He confirmed that student loans will not form part of the future funding model.
Instead, the Government has committed to providing extra funding from a combination of Exchequer investment and employer contributions, which will be kept at current levels.
Mr Harris described the announcement as a “landmark day” for higher education after years of pledges from governments to address the issue of future funding for the sector.
A key focus, he said, was ensuring cost is no longer a barrier to higher education.
“It is my firm intention to take the pressure off families and listen to the calls of our younger generations. Measures to reduce the cost of education through changes to the student grant scheme and the student contribution will be on the table for the coming budgets,” he said,
“As always the people we serve are central to all we do. Today we settle the question on higher education funding. We will increase our investment. We will also support our students.”
In return for additional funding, he said the higher education will be asked to make key reforms and “performance priorities”.
These include creating closer links between further education courses and higher education; ensuring more students from under-represented groups can attend college; improving the quality of outcomes; and meeting the skills needs of essential public services.
Mr Harris insisted the autonomy of universities will be respected and reforms were more of a “shared ambition” for the sector. He said individual college courses will not be under threat and the wider focus was on ensuring skills gaps across the economy are addressed.
The Irish Universities’ Association welcomed the plan to further invest in the sector as an “important milestone”.
Jim Miley, the association's director general, said it was essential that restrictions on hiring staff – known as the employment control framework – are removed in order to boost the quality of third-level education.
“There is absolutely no point in the Government providing extra funding if our universities are prevented from hiring full-time staff due to the employment control framework ceiling.”