University chiefs to appear before Oireachtas over funding crisis

International expert says Irish authorities should avoid a UK-style student loan scheme

Minister for Education Richard Bruton and Peter Cassells, lead author of report into funding: the Cassells report found the current  system was not fit for purpose.  Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

Minister for Education Richard Bruton and Peter Cassells, lead author of report into funding: the Cassells report found the current system was not fit for purpose. Photograph: Cyril Byrne/The Irish Times

 

The presidents of the State’s main universities and institutes of technology are set to appear before an Oireachtas committee next month as part of a series of meetings aimed at tackling the funding “crisis” facing higher education.

The meetings will be significant given that Minister for Education Richard Bruton has said tacking the future funding of third-level will require a political consensus by the committee.

The Joint Oireachtas Committee on Education plans to dedicate at least three special sittings in November and December to debating the Cassells report on long-term funding options for higher education.

University presidents say action is urgently needed as the system is in crisis after eight years of falling State funding, rising student numbers and recruitment restrictions.

The Cassells report, which found the current funding system was not fit for purpose, estimates that an additional €100 million is needed annually for the next five years to cope with population growth.

It proposes three main options, including a controversial income-contingent loan system for students combined with extra public investment.

The presidents of all the State’s seven universities and some of the heads of the 14 institutes of technology are set to appear at a special day-long meeting in November.

Future requirements

Peter Cassells

A third day-long session in December will feature two roundtable discussions with students’ union groups, university governing authorities, employers’ group Ibec and trade union group Siptu.

Meanwhile, an international expert on funding higher education has urged Irish authorities not to follow the UK’s system of student loans.

Equitable approach

Bruce ChapmanAustralia

However, he said the UK’s approach – which included taking away publicly funded subsidies, increasing tuition costs to £9,000 (€10,235) and creating a relatively short repayment window – was a recipe for failure.

“It has major non-collection issues – it’s a poor model,” he told a conference in Trinity College Dublin last week.

“Students are leaving with debt of up to £40,000 which they actually won’t pay. About 40 to 55 per cent won’t be collected because the system is designed in a weird way,” Prof Chapman said.

He said income-contingent loans can work effectively and suggested they offered potential solution to Ireland’s third-level funding crisis.

For example, in Australia and New Zealand, tuition fees are heavily subsidised by the taxpayer and graduates only being to repay loans when their income reaches the average industrial wage.

Most Opposition parties in Ireland have, however, ruled out a student loan scheme. Only Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil have left the door open to such a measure.