Third-level college funding to be linked to performance

Students could face having to pay off income contingent loans of more than €16,000

Third-level colleges will have to meet performance targets to secure additional funding under plans being drawn up by Minister for Education Richard Bruton.

Colleges’ capacity to meet skills gaps in the economy will be crucial to future funding, as will their ability to increase participation rates among disadvantaged students.

Mr Bruton will outline his plans at the publication of the long-awaited expert group on the future of third-level funding, chaired by former union leader Peter Cassells.

The report’s findings – based on a final draft seen by The Irish Times – say the current funding system needs urgent reform.


It also finds the contribution of higher education to Ireland’s economic and social development is “severely threatened”.

The numbers attending third-level are projected to grow by 30 per cent over the next 11 years. Experts say an extra €1 billion is required to keep pace with demand.

‘Free fees’

The Cassells group provides three main funding options: a “free fees” system; retaining the €3,000 student registration fee; or an income-contingent loan system.

Under the student loan system, college would be free at the point of access and graduates would repay their fees when their income reaches a set threshold.

This, the report states, could involve a typical middle-income earner paying off a loan of about €16,000 over 15 years at rate of just over €25 a week.

There is little political appetite for such measures, however, given that both Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin have voiced serious concerns over them.

Speaking before the publication, Mr Bruton said the higher education sector was at the heart of meeting massive social and economic challenges.

“There are no easy solutions here but I believe that if we are to prosper and grow as a society and an economy we must build a consensus and make some big decisions in this area,” he said,

"'Do nothing' would be to fail future generations. I look forward to discussing these issues with colleagues in the Oireachtas and other stakeholders and building a plan that can deliver on our goals in this area."

He is expected to detail a series of performance targets at the launch of the report today. These will include:

- Providing for 50,000 upskilling and reskilling places over the next five years to meet gaps in the economy and to support an increase in lifelong learning;

- Increase participation by the most disadvantaged communities by over 7 per cent ;

- Increase the number studying on a flexible basis (online, part-time) by 25 per cent;

- Increase the number of students undertaking a work placement or work based projects by 25 per cent ;

- Increase new research enrolments by 30 per cent;

The Cassells report will now be forwarded to the Oireachtas education committee.

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