USI opposes student loan scheme option

Union welcomes inclusion of free education option in long-awaited Cassells report

The Union of Students in Ireland (USI) has stated its opposition to the introduction of a student loan scheme outlined in the expert group report on the future of third-level funding.

The long-awaited Cassells report, published this morning by Minister for Education Richard Bruton, says the existing system needs urgent reform and outlines three primary options for the funding of third-level education in Ireland.

Speaking this morning, the chair of the expert group behind the report, former union leader Peter Cassells, told RTÉ’s Today with Seán O’Rourke show that at least €1billion needs to be invested in the third-level sector over the next 15 years to accommodate the young population.

Of that €1billion, €600m will be needed between now and 2021. It is estimated college numbers will increase by a third over the coming years.


Welcoming the inclusion of free education as one of the three options outlined in the report, the USI said in a statement that publicly-funded higher education “is the only option that keeps social mobility on a level playing field, strengthens the economy, reduces minimum subsistence levels and decreases breadline anxieties.”

Newly-elected USI president Annie Hoey said: "Free education is absolutely vital for intellectual progression, personal growth and career development."

The first option outlined in the Cassells report proposes the introduction of a “free fees” system. This would require a “significant increase” in state funding of third-level educational institutions. Such a predominantly state-funded system would also see the existing €3,000 registration fee abolished and the enhancement of student income supports. Higher education would be free “at the point of entry”for all first time EU students and also potentially for postgraduate students.

Student income supports would also be enhanced under the first option.

The second option would see a “considerable increase” in state funding along with the retention of the €3,000 registration fee and continuing fees for postgraduates. Income supports would also be enhanced under this option.

Stating the union's opposition the second option, Ms Hoey said: "Irish third level fees are the second highest in Europe, after the UK."

"Germany, Sweden, Norway, Denmark and Finland all offer free education. The registration fee in France is €180 - €2,820 cheaper than the Irish registration fee. Publicly-funded free education is not impossible. If it was, so many other countries in Europe wouldn't offer it.

The third, and possibly most controversial option, would see the introduction of income contingent student loans. Repayment of loans would only begin once graduates started earning at a certain threshold.

“The third option, a deferred payment loan scheme, is impractical in practice and will deter students from applying to college,” said Ms Hoey.

“An already broken loan system will only further fracture the structure of the Irish education system. It will push people further away from applying to college and increase drop-out rates. Other countries in Europe offer better pay and lower registration fees, making the cost of education cheaper abroad.”

“The student loan system crippled the government so much in the UK that they had to sell off the student loan books at the end of 2013. In America, education is the most expensive strain on the country, second only to military spending.

"In Australia, (the nearest model to the suggested Irish loan scheme), there are huge emigration problems. These are not models we want to mimic in Ireland, especially given how debt-adverse we have become as a nation.

“Quite apart from the horrific prospect of students faced with the accumulation of tens of thousands of Euros of personal debt, the loan system in the UK has been a comprehensive failure, with almost a 50 per cent non-repayment rate. In Australia, a loans system has had one in three dollars written off, creating an enormous hole in the general economy.”

Éanna Ó Caollaí

Éanna Ó Caollaí

Iriseoir agus Eagarthóir Gaeilge An Irish Times. Éanna Ó Caollaí is The Irish Times' Irish Language Editor, editor of The Irish Times Student Hub, and Education Supplements editor.